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22 October 2017

Prepare to be spellbound

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As a general rule, we don't like to start our blogposts with the words, 'We are delighted to announce'. But there's always an exception, and this is it! We are delighted to announce that the British Library's amazing new exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic is now officially open to the public.

Our exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the first publication in the United Kingdom of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, originally released in 1997. But, in a new departure, the exhibition also examines the history, mythology and folklore that lie at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. As well as original drafts and drawings loaned by J.K. Rowling herself, alongside artwork by Jim Kay (who is illustrating the Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury), you'll find on display a range of glorious items from the British Library's own collections, including Chinese oracle bones, papyri and a host of medieval manuscripts.

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The Ripley Scroll, dating from around 1600, and explaining how to make your very own Philosopher's Stone. The entire manuscript, all 5.9 metres of it, is on display in the exhibition.

Tickets are selling fast â€” this Potter thing might just catch on one day â€” but we'd love you to visit London to see the show in person between now and its final day, 28 February. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview of some of the manuscripts you'll be able to see.

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Harvesting a mandrake, medieval style (so that's how you do it!)

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A phoenix plucking twigs to make its own funeral pyre, before rising from the flames (please don't try this at home)

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How to protect yourself against malaria? Write out the word 'abracadabra' repeatedly on a piece of parchment (it's obvious when you think about it).

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library from 20 October 2017 to 28 February 2018. Tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition has been staged by the British Library in partnership with The Blair Partnership (representing J.K. Rowling) and Bloomsbury Publishing, with the kind assistance of Pottermore and Google Arts and Culture, and the generosity of numerous lenders.

The exhibition books Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a version designed especially for younger people, Harry Potter: A Journey Through the History of Magic, are available to buy through the British Library's online shop. (They're quite good, really: note to reader, I helped to write them.)

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You may also like to join our online conversation about the exhibition, using the hashtag #BLHarryPotter, with tweets by @britishlibrary, @BLMedieval and the exhibition curators. Even J.K. Rowling has joined in! Hope to see you in London soon.

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Medieval Historical Manuscripts and

Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The British Library, London

20 October 2017–28 February 2018

 

 

15 September 2017

Fragmentarium and the burnt Anglo-Saxon fragments

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Have you ever been intrigued by the survival of fragments of medieval manuscripts, used perhaps as waste in later bookbindings, or damaged in catastrophic events such as the Ashburnham House fire? The recent launch of Fragmentarium (the Digital Research Laboratory for Medieval Manuscript Fragments) will enable many of these fragments to be analysed in greater detail, and in some cases to be digitally reunited. The British Library is one partner in this project, alongside institutions and collections from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the USA, the Vatican and the United Kingdom. As the project states, 'Fragmentarium enables libraries, collectors, researchers and students to publish images of medieval manuscript fragments, allowing them to catalogue, describe, transcribe, assemble and re-use them.'

Some of our readers may have come across the story of the Ashburnham House fire of 23 October 1731. This tragic event left a number of manuscripts in the famous collection of manuscripts assembled by Robert Cotton in an extra-crispy state. After a remarkable conservation effort undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of these volumes did not look so bad, all things considered, as you can see for yourself with Beowulf. But some of these manuscripts did not fare so well — to the naked eye they often resemble something approaching a burnt biscuit!

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person.

Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v, as it looks in person

The burnt Cotton fragments are among the most evocative artefacts of medieval culture, both for the tragedy of their destruction and the mystery of their contents. Many of the surviving leaves remain critical to scholarship, often containing unique texts or their earliest known copies. Work on other fragments at the British Library has already shown that multispectral photography can make it possible to extract more information from what survives. The burnt leaves remain vulnerable, and so it is critical that digital techniques be used to document and preserve their present state.

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Cotton MS Otho A X, f. 1v: a blend of photographs taken across light spectra

For several decades, technology has been applied to improve the readability of the Cotton fragments. In the early 1950s, ultraviolet photography was applied to Æthelweard’s Chronicle (in Cotton MS Otho A X and Cotton MS Otho A XII) in order to make new sense of a handful of pages. The same process was also used with Cotton MS Otho A I. At the time, however, these photographs did not achieve wide dissemination due to the limitations of publishing in print.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library.

Multispectral imaging setup at the British Library

The recent application of multispectral photography has enabled us to recover more details of these fragments, and with reconstructed colour. At the same time, regrettably but inevitably, this technology has revealed that, in the course of half a century, the condition of these fragments has sometimes deteriorated. A few volumes that seemingly could be read without technological assistance only a few decades ago have details that today are difficult to read with the naked eye. In some cases, the volumes are so fragile that they can only be issued in the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room with special curatorial permission.

We are currently publishing key remnants of some of the burnt Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the Cotton collection on Fragmentarium. Dr Christina Duffy, the British Library's Imaging Scientist, has photographed over a hundred of these fragments and has skilfully processed them to make their reconstruction as legible as possible. The results will be available under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication. Fragmentarium has also built the capacity into their site to handle multiple images of a single folio — rare but critical functionality for dealing with multispectral imaging, since the images you will see are a scientific but also very much a human reconstruction.

Andrew Dunning

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21 August 2017

Total eclipse of the Sun

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On 21 August 2017, American readers of our Blog have the exciting opportunity to witness a full solar eclipse (some of them may even be able to hear Bonnie Tyler singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the very same time: what more could you want?). Of course, solar and lunar eclipses have been a source of wonder across the centuries, with or without Bonnie Tyler. Since Antiquity, astronomers and astrologers have had a clear understanding of how and why eclipses occur, and they were able to predict their arrival using diagrams and tables. Eclipses were also described by medieval chroniclers, who often interpreted them as an omen.

Our first historical example of an eclipse is found in this 15th-century French manuscript of the History of Alexander the Great. The scene it depicts is not a contemporary one, rather it shows the lunar eclipse which occurred during the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when Alexander the Great’s army met the Persian army of Darius III. Alexander is shown consulting his astrologers about the eclipse's meaning: the soldiers perhaps interpreted it as a bad omen.

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Miniature of Alexander the Great consulting his astrologers about an eclipse of the sun after the battle of Arbela: British Library Burney MS 169, f. 69r

Early medieval scholars knew that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Sun and Earth. One of our favourite medieval writers, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede (d. 735), explained this phenomenon in his scientific texts entitled De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things), composed around 703. In the chapter headed 'On the eclipse of the sun and the moon', Bede described how a solar eclipse occurs when the Sun is hidden by the intervention of the Moon, and a lunar eclipse when the Sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the centre.

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Extract from an 11th-century copy of Bede’s De natura rerum: British Library Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 18r

In some medieval manuscripts, astrological texts are accompanied by diagrams illustrating an eclipse. For example, this diagram, found in  a 14th-century compilation of mathematical and astronomical texts, illustrates the Sun's position in relation to the Earth and Moon.

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Diagram of a solar eclipse: British Library Royal MS 12 C XVII, f. 32r

Elsewhere, we sometimes find diagrams showing the different stages of the Sun's visibility during an eclipse.

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Series of diagrams of solar eclipses: British Library Additional MS 10628, f. 28r

Diagrams of lunar and solar eclipses could also be included in almanacs, alongside calendars and other astrological material. Almanacs were used to predict the movement of the stars and the tides, often during medical consultations. A special kind of folding almanac, favoured by medical practitioners, could be hung from its owner's belt. This folding almanac, produced in the 15th century, contains a series of diagrams of the solar eclipse, based on the Kalendarium of John Somer.

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Diagrams of solar and lunar eclipses: British Library Harley MS 937, f. 8r

For those with no astronomical knowledge, the darkening of the sky during a solar eclipse may have been particularly ominous. People would have heard or read about such events from the Old Testament story of the Plagues of Egypt, describing a darkness that lasted for three days. According to the Gospel of St Matthew, a period of darkness lasting for three hours, accompanied by earthquakes and the raising of the dead, followed the Crucifixion of Christ. These apocalyptic associations were supported by other medieval accounts. For instance, the Middle English copy of The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday found in British Library Harley MS 913, explained that the first sign of the approaching Apocalypse is that the ‘Sun will give no light and will be cast down to Earth – while you now see it [the Sun] as pleasing and bright, it will become as black as coal.'

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The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday: British Library Harley MS 913, f. 20v

You may wish to muse on this as you observe or read about this August's solar eclipse (with or without Bonnie Tyler on your headphones, obviously!). 

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God creating the Sun and the Moon: British Library Additional MS 18856, f. 5v

Becky Lawton and Clarck Drieshen

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16 July 2017

The future is in the Moon

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On this day in 1969, Apollo 11 was launched to take the first men to the Moon. For many medieval men and women, the idea of a journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere would have rocked their worldview: they saw mankind as part of the ‘sub-lunar sphere’, a world where nature is temporal, changing and corruptible. The Moon and other celestial bodies, on the other hand, were thought to inhabit a region where nature is eternal, permanent and incorruptible. A journey to the Moon would have seemed  all the more impossible because of the solid, impenetrable spheres through which the celestial bodies were thought to travel. If you are wondering how comets were accounted for: they were explained as atmospheric phenomena only!  

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Medieval Cosmology from England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton 2781, f. 1v

Classical writings and translated Arabic sources (from the 12th century onwards) nurtured the belief that the celestial bodies exert a strong influence on the sub-lunar world — both on elements and human bodies — to such a degree that they determine the outcome of daily activities and events. This belief resulted in a variety of astrological writings that provided predictions about future events (prognostications) based on the positions of the celestial bodies. Especially popular among these writings were ‘lunaries’ or ‘moonbooks’. An example of such a lunary is the Middle English verse text The Dayes of the Mone. It presents prognostications for each of the days of the synodic month: the period between two consecutive new moons that alternately has 29 and 30 days. The text, extant in the 15th-century medical and astrological miscellanies Harley MS 2320 and Harley MS 1735, helps readers determine for each day of the lunar month whether the Moon's position makes it into a good or a bad day for bloodletting, buying and selling, travelling, finding lost possessions, and for being born. For example, the text tells us that a child that is born today (16 July, the 23th day of a lunar month) will become ‘a good clerk’.

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The Dayes of the Mone, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2320, f. 31r

Users of lunaries had a need for diagrams and devices that could help them keep track of the lunar months. An example can be found in a mid-15th-century German manuscript (Additional MS 17987), where a lunary is preceded by a diagram that shows the phases of the Moon.

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A diagram with the Moon's phases, Germany, 1446, Additional MS 17987, ff. 49v-50r

Perhaps a unique example of a ‘lunary device’ may be found in a series of four paper wheels that are sewn into parchment disks inscribed with Middle Dutch biblical citations and the year ‘1585’ (Additional MS 21549). Its function is not entirely clear, but its contents suggest that it may have been used for determining favourable days for praying for the souls of the dead.

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A Middle Dutch Lunary Device ? Netherlands, 1585, Additional MS 21549

The large wheel records the 30 days of a lunar month and cites Sirach 27:12: ‘A holy man continues in wisdom as the sun: but a fool is changed as the Moon’. The small disk in the large disk’s upper right corner allows the user to record whether a synodic month has 29 or 30 days. The wheel in the left-hand corner, numbered from 1 until 9, cites Proverbs 10:7: ‘The memory of the just is with praises’. Perhaps this wheel was used to track a period of 9 months of prayer — a so-called novena — for the souls of the dead. A separate fourth wheel, numbered from 1 until 14, states that it is holy to pray for the dead. Maybe it helped users to track the period of 14 days from the lunar month’s New Moon until its Full Moon, which may have been the preferred day for prayer.

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Another view of Additional MS 21549

Another unique device can be found in a 15th-century German ‘Book of Fate’ (Additional MS 25435). This book provides answers to questions related to a variety of subjects (‘hope’, ‘happiness’, ‘dreams’, ‘wealth’, etc.) provided by 28 Old Testament prophets. These prophets should be consulted on specific days of the sidereal month: a period of time that is based on the Moon's passage through 28 segments of the zodiac (lunar mansions). In order to establish which prophet a reader should turn to for advice and on what day, the reader first needs to work his or her way to four tables with instructions from Classical and Christian authorities at the beginning of the book. For example, if your question pertains to the subject of warfare (‘crieg’), the Roman poet Cicero, in the first table, tells you that ‘what needs to be done shall be answered by Alexander [the Great]’. Alexander, in a second table, instructs you to wait until the month’s 25th day and then ask Pilate what to do. But Pilate, whose advice is found in a third table, wants you to wait until the next month’s 14th day and then consult Mercury. Mercury, finally, reveals that you should ask your question to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah on the month’s 15th day. The latter’s advice is relatively general, but allowed each reader to find a statement that was applicable to his or her situation.

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A table in the Book of Fate; Zechariah’s advice, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435, f. 2v and f. 10r

What makes this manuscript remarkable is that it features a wooden panel on the inside of its upper cover with, on a moveable disk, a figure with his or her hand in a pointing position that enabled the book’s user to track the days of the sidereal month. Click on the image to see it move!

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The lunary device in the Book of Fate, Germany, 14th/15th century, Additional MS 25435

Today, astrology, for many, is a form of entertainment, but for many medieval men and women it was a very serious matter. Astrology gave them an insight into God’s design of the universe and intended influences of the celestial bodies on earth. The Moon was well beyond their reach, but its perceived importance was much greater than it is for most of us today. To us the Moon's effect on earth begins and ends with its influence on the tides. For medieval men and women its tidal effect only confirmed its much wider influence on the elements and bodily humours.

Clarck Drieshen

14 June 2017

Written in the stars

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Have you ever read a pop-up book or a book with moving parts? Today, such books are usually associated with children, but a rather fiendishly complicated example has just been digitised by the British Library. This is a set of volvelles (moving paper or parchment wheels) and a parchment astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, the first officially appointed lecturer in mathematics in England.

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A volvelle and a tulip-rete astrolabe made by Thomas Hood, 1597, Add MS 71495 

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An astrolabe and a volvelle, London, 1590s, Add MS 71494

Astrolabes are used to measure the position of celestial bodies in the night sky. The best known examples are often made out of metal, but these parchment ones also work. Their latitude suggests that it was designed to be used just south of London. The ‘tulip’-shaped cutouts of the most elaborate astrolabe note the position of no fewer than 190 fixed stars. Astrolabes can be used for navigation, but the texts associated with these  astrolabes and volvelles texts show that they were primarily concerned with astrology. The text revealed by the astrolabe pertains to the 12 ‘houses’ of the zodiac. The positions of stars was used to predict the outcomes of illness and other such events. For example, the ‘fifth house’ is associated with good fortune for Venus but bad fortune for Mars.

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‘Thomas Hood made this, 1597’, Add MS 71495 

We know who made at least one of the astrolabes because he signed his name: Thomas Hood. Hood had trained at Trinity College, Cambridge, and been granted a licence to practise medicine by the university. Between 1588 and 1597, when the astrolabe was made, Hood was living in London, teaching and writing about mathematics. After the Spanish Armada of 1588, English leaders decided that their military and naval commanders needed to broaden their grasp of mathematics and navigation. Therefore, Sir Thomas Smith and Lord Lumley invited Hood to become the first ‘Mathematical Lecturer to the City of London’. 

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Detail of Andromeda and other constellations, Add MS 71495, f. 2r

In his lectures, Hood emphasised that it was important for all different sorts of people to know maths. As well as teaching, he also designed new navigational instruments such as Jacob’s Staff and a Sector and wrote textbooks on globes and astronomy. However, it seems that Hood really wanted to be a doctor. Although he failed his first attempt to get a licence to practice medicine in London (apparently he didn’t know enough about Galen), he was eventually given a medical licence by the Royal College of Physicians in 1597. Hood then became a doctor in Worcester, where he and his wife Frances lived for the next 20 years.

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A conservator carefully works on the astrolabe before photography

Digitising the astrolabe was a laborious process, since the instruments were designed to move and to be read from all sorts of different angles. The writing behind each of the rotating devices was photographed, so that it can easily be read online, and each rotating wheel or ‘rete’ was also photographed separately. The assembled astrolabe was then photographed, as well. This required a great deal of patience, skill and cooperation from the British Library’s conservators and photographers. Let’s take a moment to thank to them for all their hard work.

Thomas Hood's volvelles and astrolabes can be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts site: Add MS 71494 and Add MS 71495.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

05 April 2017

An illustrated Old English Herbal

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Plant-based remedies were a major feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. Thanks to our current digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, one of the British Library’s earliest illustrated collections of such remedies has just been digitised.

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Entries for chamomile and ‘hart clover’, from an illustrated Old English Herbal, England (? Christ Church Canterbury or Winchester), c. 1000–1025, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 29v

This manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) is the only surviving illustrated Old English herbal, or book describing plants and their uses. (There are other, non-illustrated manuscripts of the same text, for example in Harley MS 585.) The text is an Old English translation of a text which used to be attributed to a 4th-century writer known as Pseudo-Apuleius, now recognised as  several different Late Antique authors whose texts were subsequently combined. The manuscript also includes Old English translations of Late Antique texts on the medicinal properties of badgers (framed as a fictional letter between Octavian and a king of Egypt) and another on medicines derived from parts of four-legged animals. Together, the herbal and the text on four-legged animals are now known as part of the so-called 'Pseudo-Apuleius Complex' of texts.

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A man and a centaur presenting a book to a figure in a blue veil or hood, captioned 'Escolapius Plato Centaurus', from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 19r

Each entry features an illustration of a plant or animal; its name in various languages; descriptions of ailments it can be used to treat; and instructions for finding and preparing it. Remedies for poisonous bites were marked out with drawings of snakes and scorpions. For instance, a snake appears near the entry for sweet basil, called ‘snake plant’ (naedderwyrt), because it was reported to grow where snakes were found and to be useful against injuries caused by snakes. 

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‘Snakeplant’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57r

Although it might seem like a practical guide to finding plants and preparing remedies, this manuscript's uses are debated. First, the illustrations are not always very useful for identifying plants and animals in the wild: take, for example, these depictions of strawberries and elephants.

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‘Streawberian’, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 33v

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A monkey and elephant, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 82r

Secondly, the texts include plants and animals from Mediterranean regions and beyond which are not known to be native to the British Isles, such as cumin and licorice. Scholars debate whether the Anglo-Saxons knew these plants through trade or whether the early medieval climate could have permitted such plants to grow in England. Alternatively, the scribes and artists could simply have copied them from their Mediterranean source. The text sometimes explicitly acknowledges that plants are best found in distant regions. For example, ‘dragonswort… is said that it should be grown in dragon’s blood. It grows at the tops of mountains where there are groves of trees, chiefly in holy places and in the country that is called Apulia’ (translated by Anne Van Arsdall, in Medieval Herbal Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 154). The Herbal also includes mythical lore about some plants, such as the mandrake, said to shine at night and to flee from impure persons. To pick it, the text claimed you needed an iron tool (to dig around it), an ivory staff (to dig the plant itself up), a dog (to help you pull it out), and quick reflexes.

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A mandrake, from Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 57v

However, while this manuscript’s exact uses are debatable, it continued to be used into the 16th century: later users added numbers to the table of contents, some recipes and variants of plants' names in Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and English. Eventually, a later copy of Peter of Poitiers’ Chronicle and a 9th-century copy of Macrobius’s Saturnalia were bound with the herbal. The volume may once have belonged to William Harvey (b. 1578, d. 1657), who discovered the circulation of blood. Some of his own recipes — featuring ‘licoris’, ‘cinemon’ and opium — are found at the end of the volume.

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Recipe for ‘A Diet Drinke’ in the hand of William Harvey, 1624, Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 140v

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Le printemps s'annonce et en Angleterre les jardins commencent à renaître. La British Library vient de numériser un manuscrit rempli d’images de plantes (et d’animaux). Ce manuscrit (Cotton MS Vitellius C III) contient des textes médicaux attribués à Pseudo-Apulée: un herbier, qui précise les usages médicaux des plantes, et aussi un texte qui concèrne les usages médicaux des animaux. Tous ces textes sont traduits en vieil anglais.

Ce manuscrit est le seul exemple d’un herbier anglo-saxon illustré. Les images dépeignent les plantes et les animaux décrits dans le texte.  Cependant, les images des fraises et de l’éléphant révèlent un certain manque de vraisemblance de la part de l’artiste.

Malgré cela, plusieurs lecteurs ont utilisé ce manuscrit: il y a des additions dans des mains datant de l'onzième jusqu’au seizième siècle. Il est possible que William Harvey, le médecin qui a découvert les lois de la circulation du sang, l’ait possédé : des recettes médicales, dans sa propre main, se trouvent maintenant à la fin du manuscrit. Aujourd’hui, ce volume contient aussi une copie du Compendium historiae de Pierre de Poitiers.

 

Alison Hudson

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24 January 2017

Stars in Their Eyes: Art and Medieval Astronomy

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After coming across a familiar-looking diagram of the planets in a 10th-century manuscript a few months ago, I asked my colleagues here at the British Library how cosmology was represented in some of the manuscripts on which they are currently working. The manuscripts they recommended offered a diverse array of ways to represent the planets and stars. Stargazing may have been a common human pastime throughout the ages, but how to depict the night sky was evidently another matter.

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Christine and the Sybil pointing to a ladder from the heavens, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431, f. 189v

Today, planets are often depicted with a diagram which shows their orbits as a series of concentric circles. This type of diagram may have ancient roots, stretching back to Greek philosophers and astronomers like Ptolemy and Heraclides. Such models illustrated excerpts from the Roman thinker Pliny’s Natural History  in some early medieval manuscripts. Over time, some copies were elaborated to take into account planets’ apparent retrogrades, leading to some spectacular models where planets are given overlapping or even zig-zagging paths. Diagrams using concentric circles were incorporated into medieval authors' works, too. Such a diagram illustrates a copy of Isidore of Seville’s influential text, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), made in England in the 10th century. These diagrams reverse the positions of the Earth/moon and the sun, and some of the names of the planets are different from the names we use today, but otherwise they are largely recognizable to modern viewers.

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Diagram of the planets, from excerpts of Pliny’s Natural History, France (Fleury), c. 990-1000, Harley MS 2506, f. 53r; Right: 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.

In some cases, diagrams illustrating Pliny and other classical texts were also combined with theories attributed to Pythagoras about the relationship between musical tones, mathematical ratios and planets' orbits. Hence, a 9th-century diagram includes notes about tonus (tones) in between the planets. These diagrams could be rather elaborate, as in the 13th-century example below.

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Diagram of the harmony of the planets, marked with names of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, and the Moon, following a commentary on Ovid's Metamorphoses, France, c. 1225-1275, Burney MS 224, f. 191v

The concentric model was expanded in later medieval art to include the seven planets and the earth encircled by a layer of ‘fixed stars’ which was held up by angels. The elements of fire, air, water and earth were given their own layers, under the moon.

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Circular diagram of the spheres of the Ptolemaic system, including the four elements, the seven planetary spheres, and the sphere of fixed stars, with four angels surrounding them, from Matfré Ermengau of Béziers's Breviari d'Amour, Spain (Gerona?), c. 1375-1400, Yates Thompson 31
, f. 66r 

Other depictions of the ‘spheres’ could be even more elaborate, with Hell at the centre and the throne of God at the outermost layer.

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Full-page miniature of the Universe as a diagram formed of concentric circles, from Gautier de Metz’s L’Image du monde, Low Countries (Bruges), 1464, Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 149r  

But concentric circles were not the only way of depicting star systems in medieval manuscripts. By contrast, the model of the sun, moon and earth, from a 13th-century copy of Bede’s De temporibus, might look a bit alien to modern viewers.

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Page from Bede's De temporibus illustrated with a diagram of the sun, moon, earth and planets,
 England, c. 1244, Egerton MS 3088 f. 17v

Earth is represented by a house-/ tomb-/ reliquary-shaped box at the bottom of the diagram, while the moon is labelled in a roundel above it. According to the annotations on the side, the other roundels include Mercury, Venus and other planets, all the way up to Saturn, ‘in the 7th heaven’. The diagram accompanies a passage explaining ‘why the moon, though situated beneath the sun, sometimes appears to be above it’ (translated by F. Wallis, Bede: The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 77). While these diagrams look rather different from modern textbook representations of the sun, moon and earth, some of Bede’s text, updating to previous models of the universe, still stands. In particular, Bede is notable for being the first European to observe and record the connection between phases of the moon and the tides of the ocean.

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Diagram of planets’ orbits, from a scientific miscellany, France or England, late 11th or 12th century, Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 143v
 

The diagram in a scientific miscellany made in the late 11th or early 12th century takes yet another approach, mapping planets’ orbits onto a sort of graph. The sun’s regular appearance in the sky here contrasts with the other planets’ (and the moon's) more variable appearances over days, months and years.

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Astrological drawing of the moon and Zodiac constellations, from a collection of astronomical and alchemical treatises, England, 16th century, Egerton MS 845, f. 21v

Other depictions of cosmology and the stars prioritised artistic creativity over mathematical calculations.

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Two angels turning the axes of the world, from Matfre Ermengaud's Breviari d'amor, France (Toulouse?), mid-14th century, Harley MS 4940, f. 28r

Byzantine manuscripts provide some stunning examples of the planets as personified, depicted containing tiny portraits.

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Planets, from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 135v

Like the concentric model, these personified models were also based on classical sources, which meant that these common themes emerged even in manuscripts produced in distant regions. For example, 11th-century manuscripts from as far apart as Constantinople and England depict the sun as a charioteer.

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A personification of the rising sun, orbs of day and night, and a personification of the setting sun, from the Bristol Psalter, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 11th century, Add MS 40731, f. 80v

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The chariots of the sun and the moon, from a scientific miscellany, Southern England, c. 1030-1060, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 47r

Maps of the constellations were another way of representing the stars that was classically inspired and widespread in the Middle Ages: see our earlier blog post on Cicero’s ‘map to the stars’. Although the image of a night sky teeming with mythical monsters, ships and heroes contrasts with the model of orderly concentric orbits that began this post, we also use some of the same imagery of constellations today. See the similarities between an early medieval map of the constellations below and an advertisement for Air France which features in the British Library’s exhibition on Maps and the 20th Century (on until 1 March 2017). 

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Map of the constellations of disputed origin, 9th or 11th-century, Northwestern Europe (Northern France? Low Countries? St Augustine’s, Canterbury?), Harley MS 647, f. 21v 

This is just a small sample of the ways the planets and stars were portrayed in medieval manuscripts. It does not even begin to touch on diagrams outlining specific celestial events, like eclipses, phases of the moon and zodiac cycles. Hopefully, however, this post gives a small taste of the myriad of ways medieval people thought about and depicted the heavens. 


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Men observing the stars, from Bartholomaeus Anglicus' De Proprietatibus rerum, 
Italy (Mantua), c. 1300-1310, Add MS 8785, f. 108v

Alison Hudson

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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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