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41 posts categorized "Science"

02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts at the British Library

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You may have noticed that a certain film is currently wowing audiences worldwide. Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is the first instalment in a new movie franchise written by J. K. Rowling, and takes its inspiration from her book of the same name. But did you know that many of the beasts featured in the film and the book have their origins in Antiquity and the Middle Ages?

In 2014, our Medieval Manuscripts Blog examined some of the creatures found in medieval bestiaries. A typical medieval bestiary contains descriptions of a variety of animals, often accompanied by elaborate illustrations. Many of these animals are familiar to modern readers, including dogs, catselephants and Bad News Birds (better known as owls). Bestiaries also contain a host of more exotic beasts such as the amphivena, manticore and the basilisk, which were an important part of the medieval imagination. Here are some of these fantastic beasts, illustrated with images from manuscripts at the British Library.

Basilisk

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

What makes a beast a 'beast'?

The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin bestia which translates as 'beast' or 'animal'. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, a reference work which functioned much like a modern encyclopaedia. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore defined a ‘beast’ as an animal which ferociously attacked either with its mouth or claws. Beasts were characteristically wild, enjoyed natural freedom and were driven by their own desires.

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The opening words of De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’) in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: Harley MS 3941, f. 153r.

Centaur

Centaurs, half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval bestiaries. This image of a centaur occurs alongside lions, tigers and hedgehogs in an early 13th-century bestiary. Centaurs held a prominent place in popular folklore, from classical Greek texts, medieval bestiaries and into the modern imagination.

Centaur

Miniature of a centaur holding a snake: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v.

Phoenix

Another fantastic beast found in medieval bestiaries is the phoenix. Classical authors described how, when the phoenix reached a certain age, it would build a pyre for itself and be consumed by the flames, in order to rise again from the ashes. These stories were retold by medieval authors who used the phoenix as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ, and the promise of eternal life. The image below depicts one phoenix gathering leaves and another phoenix in flame upon a pyre.

Phoenix

Miniature of two phoenixes: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 49v. 

Harley MS 4751

A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r.

Unicorn

Unicorns were another popular animal in the medieval imagination and are often described in bestiaries and other narrative texts. They are frequently said to be too strong and swift for a hunter to catch, unless a maiden was placed in its path. Upon seeing the maiden, the unicorn would place its head in her lap and fall asleep, giving the hunter the chance he needed. This tale is depicted in the image below, found in a 13th-century bestiary.

Unicorn

Miniature of a knight spearing a unicorn, which has placed its head in a virgin's lap: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 10v.

Dragon

Surely one of the most fantastic beasts is the dragon. In the medieval imagination, dragons are characterised by their lizard-like body shape covered in scales, decorated with horns, spikes and wings, and possessing the ability to breathe fire.

Dragon

A green snake and a red dragon: Harley MS 3244, f. 59r.

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A dragon, a snake and a plant identified as 'dragontea' or 'serpentaria', in a 15th-century Italian herbal: Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r.

Basilisk

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry famously encounters a basilisk. The basilisk was renowned for killing people with a single stare. If Harry had done his homework properly (who ever does?), he would have known that one approved way of overcoming a basilisk — according to Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) — was to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Weasel odour was reputedly fatal to the basilisk, although the poor weasel would also die in the struggle.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

Merpeople

Another frequently occurring beast is the mermaid or merman. Merpeople were characterised by their human torso and tail of a fish, and were associated with perilous events such as floods, storms and shipwrecks. Merpeople were also often depicted with a mirror and a comb, accessories which demonstrated their beauty and vanity.

Mermaid
Detail of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog: Additional MS 42130, f. 70v.

Wodewose

Another anthropomorphised beast often found in medieval manuscripts is the mighty wodewose, a mythical forest-dwelling wildman. Those wishing for a more detailed account of the common characteristics of this wild beast should consult our own field guide to wodewoses.

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A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

We are delighted to announce that, next autumn, the British Library will be staging a major exhibition devoted to the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter: A History of Magic will run from 20 October 2017 until 28 February 2018, and is curated by a team led by medieval manuscripts curator Julian Harrison: here is his article The Magic of the British Library. We love the fact that many of the fantastic beasts found in the Harry Potter books were inspired by their classical and medieval ancestors; and we hope that they also fascinate the readers of our blog!

Becky Lawton and Julian Harrison

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25 November 2016

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Supermonk

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While working on the early medieval manuscripts at the British Library, I can’t help notice the sophistication and vision of the people who lived over 1000 years ago. They certainly had different worldviews and priorities from people living today; but I’m constantly surprised by the ambition of some of their inventions and ideas. For example, did you know that the first recorded pioneer of man-powered flight in the British Isles was an Anglo-Saxon monk from Malmesbury Abbey called Eilmer (or in Old English, Ã†thelmaer) who lived between about 980 and 1070?    

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Opening page of William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum: Arundel 35, f. 1r. Southern England (Winchester?) 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century.

Eilmer’s life is recounted in the Deeds of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury; indeed, William may have met him when Eilmer was an old man. According to William, many years earlier Eilmer had attached wings to his hands and his feet and jumped from a tower, travelling at least a ‘stadium’ (possibly 200 metres or 600 feet), before being caught by turbulence and breaking both his legs. Eilmer later claimed his error was not fitting a tail to himself, as well as wings. For comparison, the Wright Brothers’ first flight covered about 120 feet.

Harley MS 603, f. 9r
We have no evidence of what Eilmer’s wings looked like, but some contemporary artists depicted humanoid angels with wings, sometimes flying or floating: the Harley Psalter, Harley MS 603, f. 9r. Christ Church, Canterbury, 11th century.

Eilmer was probably born in the 980s and died after 1066, so his flight probably took place in the 1000s or 1010s. We can guess Eilmer’s lifespan because William of Malmesbury claimed Eilmer had seen Halley’s Comet twice, in 1066 and presumably in 989. Comets were associated with political upheaval, and William dramatically described how, upon seeing the comet in 1066, Eilmer became very upset and prophesied the Norman Conquest:

‘Crouching in terror at the sight of the gleaming star, "You've come, have you?" he said. "You've come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country."’ (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, chapter 225, translated by R.A.B. Mynors and others (London: The Folio Society, 2014), p. 248.)

Although 1000 or 1010 is an early date for man-powered flight, Eilmer was not the first human to attempt to fly. The 14th-century writer al-Makkari claimed that the 9th-century Andalusian scholar Abbas ibn Firnas also tried to fly, and also attributed his failure to forgetting to build a tail. Eilmer and Firnas were in good company in this respect: modern reconstructions of Leonardo da Vinci's design for a gilder also failed until a tail was added. Other medieval aviators included the scholar and dictionary-writer al-Jawhari, who reportedly died while trying to fly from the roof of a mosque in Nishapur in what is modern-day Iran in 1003 or 1008. There are even earlier stories about people flying or gliding in China, Ancient Greece and Rome.

Like many of these other early pioneers of flight, Eilmer was also a scholar. Sadly, none of his own writings survive to the present day. However, on Digitised Manuscripts you can see one manuscript which Eilmer himself may have read: an Old English copy of the Gospels (Cotton MS Otho C I/1). This manuscript seems to have been owned at Malmesbury Abbey by the mid-11th century, when an Old English translation of a papal decree relating to Malmesbury was added between the gospels of Luke and John.

Cotton Otho C I!1 ff. 69v-70r
Inserted translation of a papal decree facing the opening page of the Gospel of St John in Old English: Cotton MS Otho C I/1, ff. 69v-70r. England, c. 1000-1050.

Other monks at Malmesbury do not seem to have been amused by Eilmer’s experiments and inventions. Although William of Malmesbury generally respected Eilmer, he chided him for thinking that the ‘fable’ of the Greek inventor Daedalus flying was actually real. Even today, the ‘Birdman of Bognor’ competition for individual flying contraptions features contestants who, for the most part, lampoon the idea of individual flight. Eilmer was not the last human to try to fly, however. His story inspired thinkers from Roger Bacon to John Milton to the 19th-century ornithologist John Wise to 20th-century French scholars. Today, you can see airplanes in the sky above Malmesbury Abbey, some perhaps passing over the exact same stretch where Eilmer first glided.

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

13 November 2016

Automata for the People: Greek Scientific Manuscripts Online

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Among the many Greek manuscripts held by the British Library, a small group stand out for their fascinating diagrams, depicting all sorts of marvellous machines and robots powered by steam. Although most of these manuscripts date from the 16th century, the texts they include date back to antiquity and Byzantium. They provide an invaluable insight into aspects of scientific inquiry in antiquity, a side of Graeco-Roman antiquity that is often overlooked in the modern day.

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Hydraulic musical organ powered by a hand-pump from Hero’s Pneumatika. Burney MS 108, f. 60v. Italy, N. (Venice?), 1st quarter of the 16th century.

The earliest reference to robots in Greek antiquity comes in Homer’s Iliad, where Hephaestus, god of fire and craftsmen, has handmaids made of gold who assist him in his forge (Iliad 18.417-20). But it is in the Hellenistic and imperial Roman eras that we find a great outpouring of interest in automata – devices that appear to move of their own accord, powered by steam. As Ian Ruffell outlines in his article on ancient mechanics, newly added to the British Library’s Greek Manuscripts Project Website, the ingenious machines described by writers such as Ctesibius, Philo of Byzantium and Hero of Alexandria raise the question of why ancient technology and experimentation never really took off, especially given the clear interest they had for many writers, both in antiquity and beyond. Even the Roman author Vitruvius, in his monumental work on architecture, included discussion of some of Ctesibius’ inventions. (And although not a Greek manuscript, we cannot resist here mentioning that the British Library holds the oldest extant manuscript of Vitruvius, a Carolingian manuscript from early 9th-century Germany.)

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The title-page of the oldest manuscript of Vitruvius’ De Architectura. Harley MS 2767, f. 1r. Germany, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

Ancient mechanical texts described procedures that may have existed more in theory than in reality, but many other ancient texts survive describing scientific or medical procedures that were put into practice in antiquity. The writings of ancient figures such as Galen, Hippocrates and the author now known only as the Anonymus Londiniensis, tell us about how doctors in antiquity went about observing and treating their patients. For more information on the transmission of Greek medical and philosophical writings, see Aileen Das’ article on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Papyrus 137
The Anonymus Londiniensis papyrus contains part of a treatise on medicine. Papyrus 137, Egypt, 1st century.

While some ancient scientific and philosophical texts were ‘lost’ to the West during the Middle Ages, reappearing only through secondhand translations into Latin from Arabic intermediaries, or in the Renaissance, these texts were known and copied in the Byzantine Empire for centuries. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, Greek scholars migrating to Italy took many manuscripts with them. Shortly afterwards, the development of Greek printing enabled widespread copying of these texts, and led to a renewed interest in Greek science and medicine in Western Europe.

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The Prognosticon of Hippocrates. Harley MS 6295, f. 98r. Eastern Mediterranean, 2nd half of the 15th century.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

@BLMedieval

25 July 2016

Star Item: An Anglo-Saxon Sketch of the Solar System

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When people living over a 1000 years ago looked into the sky, how did they interpret what they saw? Helen Sharman and Tim Peake may be the first two Britons to actually go to outer space, but people living in the British Isles and Europe have been picturing the galaxy for a very long time. We have an idea of how some medieval people thought of the galaxy thanks to a recently digitised 10th-century manuscript that contains an early diagram of the solar system.

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Diagram of the planets’ orbits, from Isidore of Seville’s De Natura Rerum, England (St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury?), Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23v

The accompanying text explains that this diagram represents the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks.’ These are the moon, which orbits closest to Earth; Mercury; Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’; the Sun; Vesper, which is also associated with Mars; Foeton, 'which they call Jupiter'; and ‘cold’ Saturn. 

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_i_f023v
Detail of a diagram of the planets' orbits, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 23r

The diagram and text come from a 10th-century copy of On the Nature of Things (De Natura Rerum) by Isidore of Seville (d. 636). De Natura Rerum is a natural history of the material world. Isidore was inspired by classical writers such as Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC), who sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena.

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Phases of the moon, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 20r

Isidore updated his classical models by adding a Christian framework and a series of diagrams to illustrate his text. Manuscripts of De Natura Rerum such as Cotton MS Domitian A I contain so many of these diagrams, which are often circular, that Isidore’s work was often referred to as ‘The Book of Wheels’ (Liber Rotarum).

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Diagram of the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 13r

Beyond the solar system, the copy of De Natura Rerum in Cotton MS Domitian A I includes diagrams to explain everything from rainbows to latitudes to the humours.

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A circular diagram showing the winds linked to the months, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 31r

Many of these diagrams link various natural phenomena. One diagram connects different winds to different months. Another groups each of the four elements with a season, a temperature and one of the four humours: choler (yellow bile), melancholy (black bile), blood, and phlegm.

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_i_f014r
Diagram of the four humours, elements, and seasons, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f.14r

While concepts such as the humours now seem alien to us, other diagrams in Isidore’s work represent concepts that are still familiar. One wheel depicts five temperate zones by latitude, noting that the poles were colder, uninhabitable regions, and temperatures became warmer as one travelled towards the centre of the map. These diagrams even employ terms which we use today, including ‘Arctic’ and ‘Antarctic’.

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_i_f012v
Diagrams of the five temperature zones and of latitudes, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 12v

Isidore’s works were widely studied in early medieval Europe. This particular manuscript was made in 10th-century England, but Isidore’s works were known there much earlier. The 8th-century Northumbrian monk Bede even wrote his own version of De Natura Rerum

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A diagram representing a rainbow, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 28v

This particular manuscript was probably owned, and possibly made for, a man called Æthelstan, whose collection of books is listed on f. 55v. ‘De Natura Rerum’ is the first book in the list. Æthelstan also owned several works by the 4th-century grammarian Donatus, various treatises on grammar and the art of poetry, and one ‘gerim’, which was possibly a calendar or a text on calculation, ‘which was the priest Ælfwold’s.’ Æthelstan's precise identity is unknown, since this was a common name in late 10th-century England, when this book and list were copied. He probably was not the early 10th-century king called Æthelstan, since the manuscript and its booklist were probably written after King Æthelstan's death in 939. Nevertheless, the Æthelstan of the book list was evidently a man of some wealth: all manuscripts were expensive, and this copy of De Natura Rerum has colour diagrams and a little gold, for highlighting the stars in the solar system. Judging from his booklist, he was also highly educated, with a particular interest in grammar and language.

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Booklist, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 55v

As an educated Latinist, Æthelstan would have fitted into some of the most influential circles in 10th-century England. This was a time of great manuscript production and learning, thanks to the encouragement and book collecting of cosmopolitan rulers such as King Æthelstan (d. 939) and of monastic reformers, who sought to increase standards of learning in English religious houses. Æthelstan the Grammarian’s manuscript of De Natura Rerum seems to be related to those developments because it uses the Caroline minuscule script closely associated with the reformed monasteries. However, Æthelstan may not have been a monastic reformer himself: his book list shows he had private property, which was technically forbidden to monastic reformers. Admittedly, this need not disqualify him from having been a reformer: even the notably strict reforming bishop Æthelwold was personally associated with a particular service book.

In the late medieval period, the manuscript was kept in the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, where it may have been used by members of that institution.

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Isidore’s T-O map of Asia, Africa, Europe, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 37r

Once the deluxe possession of a well educated man, then part of an institutional library, this copy of De Natura Rerum is now available in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Modern people may use it differently, but some of its topics and diagrams — particularly the striking diagram of the solar system — remind us that we are not so very different from early medieval people in the questions we ask about the world around us. 

Cotton_ms_domitian_a_i_f017r
Drawing of the sun, from Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 17r

Alison Hudson

@BLMedieval

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26 May 2016

Bede: The Greatest Hits

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On this day in AD 735 the Venerable Bede died in his monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Bede is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and is often affectionately known as the father of English history. However, this text was written at the end of a long career, in which Bede wrote many works on hagiography, natural science and theology. When another monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow wrote an account of Bede’s death, he described how Bede continued with his scholarly pursuits right up until his final moments. On the anniversary of Bede’s death, it seems fitting to explore some of Bede’s greatest hits, which can be found within the British Library’s manuscript collections.

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Beginning of the second book from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People survives in a number of copies here at the British Library. Our earliest copy of the text can be dated to the late 8th century or the beginning of the 9th century, having been made in the decades after Bede’s death. Although this manuscript was damaged in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731, it is still possible to see ornate features such as the decorated initials above which begin book 2 of the History.

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Opening page of Bede’s Eccesiastical History, England (Southumbria), c. 800-850, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Bede’s work was widely copied within a few years of his death and for centuries thereafter. The British Library has a lavishly illuminated, early 9th-century manuscript of the Ecclesiastical History from Southumbria (Cotton MS Tiberius C II), which will soon be available in full on Digitised Manuscripts. We have also recently uploaded a 10th-century copy of the Ecclesiastical History to Digitised Manuscripts (Royal MS 13 C V).

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Page from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England, late 9th or early 10th century, Cotton MS Domitian A IX, f.11r

The British Library also holds several fragments of an Old English translation of the Ecclesiastical History written in the late 9th or early 10th century, including the recently digitised fragment in Cotton MS Domitian A IX. It is not known exactly when the Ecclesiastical History was first translated into Old English, although it is thought to have been part of King Alfred of Wessex’s programme to provide the ‘books most needful for men to know’ in English in the late 9th century.

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St Cuthbert greeting King Ecgfrith, from Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert, England (Durham), c. 1175-1200, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 51r

Bede is also well known for writing biblical commentaries, hagiographies, and poems on religious subjects (such as the recently digitised Add MS 11034). These include both a prose and a verse Life of St Cuthbert. A number of manuscripts of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert were recently uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts, including a 12th-century manuscript which contains a number of well-known illustrations to the text (Yates Thompson MS 26).

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Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r

In this same manuscript, the preface to the prose Life of St Cuthbert includes a miniature of a scribe writing at a desk. As it accompanies the preface, the figure within this drawing is often thought to be Bede himself.

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Page from Bede, De natura rerum, England, c. 975-1025, Cotton MS Domitian A I, f. 2r

Bede’s scholarly interests were not limited to history, hagiography and theology; he also wrote a number of works describing the natural world. He was the first European to note the relationship between the moon and the tides and he was skilled in very complex forms of mathematics. One of these works was entitled On the Nature of Things, and includes chapters on the creation of the world, and descriptions of astronomical and metrological features. The page above is taken from a 10th-century fragment of this text.

Egerton 3088   f. 16v
Page from Bede’s De temporibus illustrated with zodiac symbols, England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088, f. 16v

Bede wrote a brief introduction to the subject of computus, which was designed to give its readers basic knowledge of the methods of calculating the date of Easter. This was a tricky subject in Bede’s day, and in this work he used simple Latin and short sentences in order to make the text accessible to a beginner. Pictured above is a 13th-century English copy of the text, and is accompanied by an illustration of four zodiac figures; Aries, Gemini, Taurus, and Cancer.

Egerton 3088   f. 17v
Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

In addition to these other works, Bede wrote a number of letters throughout his life. The letter on the page below is a 12th-century copy of a letter written by Bede to Bishop Ecgberht of York only a few months before Bede’s death in May 735. In this letter, Bede is heavily critical of the current state of the Northumbrian Church and outlines various ways in which it could be reformed. Within this letter, Bede explains to Ecgberht that he is writing a letter because he is physically unable to travel to York in order to speak to Ecgberht in person. This gives some sense of Bede’s declining health in the months before his death.

Harley 4688 f89
Beginning of Bede's letter to Ecgberht, England (Durham), c. 1100-1150, Harley MS 4688, f. 89r

Cuthbert, a monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede’s death in the form of a letter. This letter can often be found in manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History such as Harley MS 3680, copied in the 12th century. In his account of Bede’s death Cuthbert included a short poem, which he claimed was composed by Bede in Old English upon his deathbed. The poem translates as:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,

If he consider, before his going hence,

What for his spirit of good hap or of evil

After his day of death shall be determined.

Trans. J. McClure and R. Collins (eds), The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1994), p. 301

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Image of Bede from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, England (East Anglia?), c. 1375- 1406, Arundel MS 74, f.2v

Cuthbert described how, upon hearing this poem, he and his fellow monks shared in Bede’s sorrow. He claims that they ‘read and wept by turns’ or wept continually as they read. Their reaction demonstrates that Bede was heavily valued as a scholar and a teacher at Wearmouth-Jarrow. Perhaps there are also a few modern readers of this blog who will shed a little tear on this anniversary of Bede’s death.

~Becky Lawton

22 April 2015

Ointments and Potions

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We have recently published to Digitised Manuscripts Sloane MS 345, a Dutch scientific manuscript of the early 16th century containing a cornucopia of scientific texts, from prescriptions for ointments and suppositories, to a treatise on varnishes for the conservation of paintings, to a recipe for brandy or aqua vitae. Some of the texts are in Latin and others in Middle Dutch.

The format is of a plain, workaday text, a collection that was probably compiled for a physician and was in fact in the collection of Francis Bernard (d. 1698), apothecary and physician to King James II of England in the seventeenth century.

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Page of recipes with the rubrics ‘Gebrande wyn te maken’ and ‘de aq[ua] viva’ in the margin, from a Dutch scientific compendium, the Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f. 50v

One of the key texts is the ‘Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum’, a collection of didactic verse on health, diet and medicine, put together for oral transmission by doctors at the School of Salerno, Italy, and assembled in written form in the 13th century by Arnoldus de Villa Nova (b. c. 1240, d. 1311), professor of medicine. He is credited with coining the label ‘aqua vitae’, which he described as ‘a water of immortality….that clears away ill-humours, revives the heart and maintains youth’. It is interesting to note that in this manuscript, ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘gebrande wyn’ in Middle Dutch, is found in a collection of culinary recipes rather than among the medicinal waters, suggesting that it was starting to be seen as more of a lifestyle choice than a medicine in the early 16th century.

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Arnoldus de Villa Nova, 'T[ra]ctat[us] de laudibus virtutib[us] querci', a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, from a Dutch scientific compendium, Netherlands, c. 1500, Sloane MS 345, f 15r

A further contribution by Arnoldus de Villa Nova is a letter to Richard, Bishop of Canterbury, on the medicinal properties of the oak tree. Oak bark was used to treat infections, burns and cuts.

There are several collections of recipes for medicinal waters and herbal remedies. Here is an image from another manuscripts showing the apparatus used for alchemical processes and to prepare alcohol for medicinal uses and for the infusion of herbs, from Sloane MS 3548, a 15th-century English manuscript.

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Scientific apparatus from John Arderne, Medical Miscellany, England, 15th century, Sloane MS 3548, f. 25r

A work on the treatment of wounds is attributed in Sloane MS 345 to the young Lanfranc of Milan and a treatise, ‘De signis mortis’, gives examples of skin conditions and pustules indicating impending death. This treatise includes the Hippocratic facies, the description of a countenance often present at the verge of death, still used in medical prognosis today.

This image is from Sloane MS 6, another manuscript of John Arderne’s medical works. It shows Hippocrates (or Galen) holding up what is perhaps a urine glass to the sun on the lower left page.

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Drawings of medical practitioners at work and medical diagrams from John Arderne, Medical treatise, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Sloane MS 6, ff. 175v-176r

Sloane MS 345 also contains medical works such as Chirurgia Parva (ff 118r-127v) and Liber de matrice mulieris et impugnatione (ff 128r-130r),attributed to Johannes de Ketham, a German physician living in Italy at the end of the 15th century. His Fasciculus medicinae, published in Venice in 1491, was the first printed book to contain anatomical illustrations.

De Ketham’s treatise on the conservation of easel paintings, De diversis coloribus picturis et tincturis contains recipes for pigments, oils, painting and guilding, provides insights into the techniques or materials used by Dutch artists in the early 16th century.

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St Luke at his easel painting the Virgin, Gospels of Luke and John, England, S.E. , 1st quarter of the 16th century, Royal 1 E V, f. 3r

Sloane 345 is a treasure trove of information on medical practices and remedies, but so as not to disappoint our readers who would like to see more graphic representations of medieval medical practices, here are two examples from other medical manuscripts in our collections.

Harley MS 1585 is another Dutch manuscript, this time from the southern Netherlands in the 12th century, a medical miscellany with a pharmacopeial compilation, including a herbal and bestiary. The full online version is available on Digitised Manuscripts.

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Miniature of medical and surgical procedures, inscribed 'a podagric is incised and burned thus', Netherlands, S. (Mosan region), or England? Harley MS 1585, f. 9r

Sloane MS 1977 is a collection of medical texts including Roger of Parma’s Chirurgia , translated into French, with full-page illustrations. It was in the Royal library in the 16th century, but later became part of the scientific collection of Sir Hans Sloane. It is partially digitised in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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An operation to repair a compound fracture of the skull, France, N. (Amiens), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Sloane 1977, f. 2r



-          Chantry Westwell

26 August 2014

Bugs in Books

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Even the most cursory glance over the pages of medieval manuscripts will reveal a plethora of insects.  Bugs are everywhere – although we hasten to add that we are extremely vigilant about avoiding the presence of any actual living insects within the pages of our books.  But there has been little comprehensive scholarship about the appearance of such creatures in medieval manuscripts.  Insects usually live literally in the margins, often not even appearing in catalogue entries despite their profusion. 

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Detail of a border including flowers, moths, and flies, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Additional MS 35313, f. 64v

Whilst undertaking this very short exploration of the subject, therefore, we would do well to remember the words of one of the earliest writers about these minute creatures.  As Pliny the Elder reminds us in the introduction to his book about insects:  â€˜Nature is nowhere to be seen in greater perfection than in the very smallest of her works.  For this reason then, I must beg of my readers, notwithstanding the contempt they feel for many of these objects, not to feel a similar disdain for the information I am about to give relative thereto, seeing that, in the study of Nature, there are none of her works that are unworthy of our consideration.’

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Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with marginal spiders and a praying mantis, Italy (Genoa), c. 1330 – c. 1340, Additional MS 28841, f. 6r

We’ll begin, as we almost always do, with the bestiary, that essential book of medieval beasts.  The early medieval bestiary includes amongst its pages only two species of what we would consider insects today – ants and bees.

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Detail of a miniature of ants in their anthill, from a bestiary, England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century, Harley MS 4751, f. 32r

The humble ant is given quite extensive treatment in the bestiary.  Echoing Isidore of Seville’s somewhat fanciful etymology, the text tells us that the ant is called ‘formica’ because it carries pieces of grain (‘ferat micas’).   It goes on to describe much recognisable ant behaviour, detailing how ants walk in lines to gather food, store it for the winter, carry loads far in excess of their own size, and work together for the good of the group. 

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Detail of a miniature of ants on their anthill, from a theological miscellany including a bestiary, England, 1236 – c. 1250, Harley MS 3244, f. 50r

A parallel tradition to that of the bestiary is the Physiologus, one of the precursors to the Marvels of the East.  In the Physiologus, a subspecies of ant, as large as dogs, is said to live in Ethiopia and to be adept at digging up gold.  Such skill can be exploited by human beings, but only very carefully, as these ants will try to chase down and kill anyone who attempts to steal from them. 

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Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a camel, while a man loads another camel with gold and escapes, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 101r

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Detail of a miniature of dog-like gold-digging ants attacking a group of men who have come to steal their gold, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 96r

The concept of insects as a distinct class of animals was one that didn’t exist in this period.  Bees, for example, are characterised as the ‘smallest of birds’, and accordingly, often come at the end of the bestiary's section on winged animals.  They are described as industrious creatures, living in community under a chosen king.  Born in the decaying bodies of oxen or slaughtered calves, it is said, bees build their homes with ‘indescribable skill’, make honey, and then guard it fiercely against all potential invaders.  Much like ants, bees were praised over the centuries by various authors who considered them humble and loyal animals, ‘wonderfully noble', and worthy of emulation by human beings.

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Detail of a miniature of bees guarding their hives against a marauding bear, from Flore de virtu e de costumi (Flowers of Virtue and of Custom), Italy (Padua?), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 3448, f. 10v

Royal MS 12 C XIX f. 45r bees F60101-62a
Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar and returning to their hive, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 45v

That said, bees could sometimes be used as weapons.  A mid-13th century copy of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer contains a miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch who was bound to a tower and smeared with honey in a gruesome attempt to end his life.

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Miniature of the Patriarch of Antioch being attacked by bees, from
William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, France (Picardy?), 1232-1261, Yates Thompson MS 12, f. 120r

It is not clear why the early bestiaries omitted so many of the species of insects that people must surely have been familiar with – in many cases, perhaps, far too familiar. Flies, spiders, moths, and butterflies do not put in appearances in texts until later.  The British Library is lucky enough, however, to possess a mid-16th century Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate which includes a cicada (f. 13r), a locust-like insect (f. 19r), and three species of spider – two of which are poisonous (and one of which is apparently six-legged).

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Detail of a painting of three spiders, including a malmignatte, from a Greek copy of Manuel Philes’ De animalium proprietate, 2nd – 3rd quarter of the 16th century, Burney MS 97, f. 29r

Six-legged spiders are not unusual to find in medieval art, and neither are their ten-legged cousins, as the examples below will show:

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Detail of a six-legged spider in its web, from an herbal, Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane MS 4016, f. 6r

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Detail of a marginal ten-legged spider, from Gerald of Wales’ Topographic Hiberniae, England (Lincoln?), c. 1196 – 1223, Royal MS 13 B VIII, f. 11r

Most insects in medieval art, however, were not designed to illustrate any accompanying text, or at least, not literally. This is particularly the case for manuscripts from the later medieval era.  The vast majority of insect examples we have found are decorative ones, taking their place amongst the flowers, fruit, and jewels that adorn these pages.  Some are occasionally used for humorous purposes, or may have been intended to underscore the message of the text.   An extremely small selection of these sorts of images is below; if we have omitted any gems, please do let us know in the comments or on Twitter: @BLMedieval.  Happy bug hunting!

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Detail of a marginal painting of flies surrounding a dog, from the Maastricht Hours, Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 48r

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Detail of a marginal dragonfly and dragon, from the Lovell Lectionary, England (probably Glastonbury), c. 1400 – c. 1410, Harley MS 7026, f. 13r

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Selection of cuttings of border illuminations, featuring flowers, birds, moths, butterflies, and other insects, Italy (Rome), c. 1572 – c. 1585, Additional  MS 35254, f. N

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Detail of a folio from a prose treatise on the Seven Vices, with a caterpillar and a spider catching a fly, Additional MS 28841, f. 7v

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Detail of a grasshopper, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Additional MS 18851, f. 30r

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Detail of a butterfly alighting on a flower, Additional MS 18851, f. 17r

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Detail of a miniature of bees collecting nectar, and a beekeeper (rotated 180°), from the Exultet Roll, Italy (Monte Cassino), c. 1075 - c. 1080, Add MS 30337, membrane 10

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Miniature of the Crucifixion, with a gold border including flowers, moths, a fly, and a caterpillar, Additional MS 35313, f. 29r

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Detail of a border including a monkey and a fly, Additional MS 35313, f. 71v

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Detail of a border including a dragonfly and helmets, from De bello gallico, Italy, 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Burney MS 132, f. 2r

- Sarah J Biggs