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14 August 2018

A costume fit for a centaur

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Among the many intricate designs compiled in the 15th-century sketchbook of an unknown Italian engineer (Add MS 34113), a centaur costume has an irresistible appeal. It is amusing to think that someone devoted their technical and artistic skills to designing something so wonderfully impractical. Yet, while we may smile wryly at it today, the centaur costume reflects a Renaissance passion for artistic creativity, scientific enquiry and classical antiquity.

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Design for a centaur costume (Siena?, 2nd half of the 15th century): Add MS 34113, f. 176v

The design for the centaur costume consists of a replica of the back and hindquarters of a horse that fastens around the wearer’s waist. Inside, an articulated structure with straps attaching to the wearer’s legs is intended to make the rear legs of the horse ‘walk’ with him. The man wearing the costume holds a rod that apparently connects to the internal structure, perhaps designed to help him manipulate the rear legs. Platform shoes imitating the appearance of hooves complete the look. We sense that the design lacks enough joints and linkages to work in practice, but it demonstrates experimentation with the challenge of mechanically transmitting movement.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for diving apparatus (Italy, 1st quarter of the 16th century): Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

The manuscript occupies an important place in 15th-century developments in mechanical engineering. Some of its designs for hoists seem to be indebted to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the engineer who famously solved the challenge of building the colossal dome of Florence Cathedral. Others seem to have roused the interest of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whose designs for diving equipment and parachutes appear to be improved versions of those contained here. The manuscript reveals a culture in which engineers were compiling textbooks, sharing mechanical designs and modifying each other’s ideas in a more systematic and scholarly way than ever before.

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Design for diving equipment: Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Like Brunelleschi and Leonardo, the creator of this manuscript was an accomplished engineer as well as an artist. The manuscript’s elegant drawing style reveals a draftsman versed in quattrocento artistic developments. In the centaur design, the technical challenge of replicating movement is linked inextricably to the artistic challenge of representing a creature both naturalistically and gracefully. Such aesthetic and practical skills were necessary in an age when creative individuals were commissioned to produce everything that their elite patrons required — from paintings and sculptures, to props and banners for festivities, to works of engineering and architecture.

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Dante and Vergil encounter centaurs in the Inferno (Siena?, 1st half of the 15th century): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 21v

The theoretical approach that transformed the arts and sciences in this period was informed by an enthusiasm for classical learning. As a fantastical creature from classical mythology, the centaur fits easily into this context. In art and literature, centaurs symbolise the bestial and irrational side of Antique culture, characterised as wild and dangerous. For example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the centaurs that patrol the first ring of the circle of violence represent the psychology of madness, with their physical duality reflecting a split mind (Inferno, Canto 12). In Botticelli’s painting Pallas and the Centaur (c. 1482), the woman subduing the centaur is an allegory for the triumph of rationality over chaos.

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Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

These elements of sophisticated engineering, artistic achievement and classical imagery all came together in the spectacle of public entertainments, which provide the most likely motivation for the design of the articulated centaur costume. The most celebrated artists and engineers of the age were employed to construct awe-inspiring devices for such events. The biographer and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) tells us that, for the 1439 Annunciation festival at the Church of San Felice in Florence, Brunelleschi created a mechanical paradise that was ‘truly marvellous and demonstrated the talent and skill of the man who invented it, for on high a Heaven full of living and moving figures could be seen, as well as countless lights, flashing on and off like lightning’.

From the mid-15th century, the entertainments at tournaments and pageants began to incorporate classical imagery, sometimes including centaurs. For example, at a tournament held in 1481, centaurs, the Cyclops, Ganymede, Vulcan, Neptune, Hercules, Mars and Jupiter rode through Treviso on triumphal cars. During his stay in Trent in January 1549, King Philip II of Spain was entertained by a mock battle with pyrotechnics between an army of men bearing the badge of Hercules and an army of centaurs, giants and ‘Turks’. It is tempting to suppose that the centaur costume was intended as a theatrical device for just such an event.

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The constellation Centaurus (Rome, c. 1480): Egerton MS 1050, f. 41v

Despite its apparent eccentricity, the design for a centaur costume is a fitting testament to the ideals of its age, in which science, art, classicism and entertainment were inseparably connected.

 

Eleanor Jackson

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27 June 2018

Networks of Knowledge: Insular manuscripts and digital potential

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In the early Middle Ages, ‘Insular’ missionaries, reformers, pilgrims and intellectuals from Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England ventured onto the Continent, leaving their distinctive mark on European culture. They founded monasteries that became centres for learning and formed institutional networks that extended across Europe. They brought manuscripts from the ‘isles’ and established new libraries and scriptoria to transmit and expand knowledge. Their efforts are evident today in the considerable number of manuscripts with distinctive Insular script, decoration, texts and techniques of production that are still found in European libraries. Around 75% of all surviving Insular manuscripts are housed in continental European collections, with most of these in Insular missionary areas. Almost 50% now have a digital presence online, which represents a tipping point for digital scholarship on these books.

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‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe’ — in the first words of his Ecclesiastical History, Bede sets Britain firmly in its European context: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

Members of the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts section recently participated in a workshop in Dublin and Galway (19–22 June 2018), organised by Joanna Story (University of Leicester), as part of the project ‘Insular Manuscripts AD 650-850: Networks of Knowledge’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. It followed the first workshop in the series, hosted by the British Library in April 2017. The final workshop will take place next year in Vienna.

This most recent event focused on the topic of ‘Networks of knowledge then and now: digital potential’. Its purpose was to bring together curators, digital specialists and academics to discuss the new possibilities offered by digital technology for promoting and researching Insular manuscripts. In particular, we examined how digitised manuscripts provide a large accessible dataset which can be searched, mapped and interrogated to help us trace early medieval cultural networks across Europe. Like the Insular networks of knowledge, our research network was fundamentally international in its scope, and aimed to deepen connections between scholars based in libraries and in universities.

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Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

During the workshop, we heard presentations from those who have curated projects to digitise and promote manuscripts. Rachel Moss (Trinity College Dublin) reflected on ‘The Bank of America Merrill Lynch-TCD Gospel Books Project’, which conserved and digitised four early medieval Irish manuscripts from the collections of Trinity College Dublin. Charlotte Denöel (Bibliothèque nationale de France) gave us an overview of The Polonsky Project â€” the collaborative project between the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France to digitise 800 early medieval manuscripts and present and interpret them on our shared websites. We learned about the Insular manuscripts digitised by the e-Codices website from Brigitte Roux (e-Codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, University of Fribourg), as well as the potential for digitally reassembling fragments with the new project Fragmentarium. Karin Zimmerman (University of Heidelberg) told us about her work virtually reconstructing the historical libraries of Lorsch Abbey and the Palatine Library. We were reminded of the scale of the task of digitisation by Claire Breay (The British Library), and of the possibility of losing a sense of the scale and materiality of the manuscripts as objects.

We also learned about the software and techniques being developed to provide new ways of working with digitised manuscripts. Ben Albritton’s (Stanford University) tutorial on the IIIF image viewer Mirador had us comparing, annotating and sharing digitised manuscripts from different libraries and websites using the same interface. Stewart Brookes (University of Cambridge) showed us how to use the software Archetype as a palaeographical or art-historical tool for digital annotation, comparison and searching of manuscripts. We were deeply impressed by Christina Duffy’s (The British Library) examples of how multispectral imaging can recover details of manuscripts otherwise obscured by damage.

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A fragment of decrees from the Council of Clofesho (747), damaged in the Cotton Library fire, before and after Christina Duffy processed it through multispectral imaging: Cotton MS Otho A I, f. 1r

Additionally, researchers told us about the ways in which they are employing digital tools in their own projects. We heard from Immo Warntjes (Trinity College Dublin) about his new project, funded by the Irish Research Council, to develop an 'Object Based Catalogue' of medieval scientific texts using the data from digitised manuscripts, to trace the transmission of Irish ideas and reconstruct the continental networks of Irish thought. Máirín MacCarron (National University of Ireland Galway) showed us how she is using social network analysis tools in a new project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to better understand the dynamic social relationships presented in early medieval texts. The use of digital tools to measure Insular influence in continental manuscripts was demonstrated by Ursula Kundert (University of Würzburg), through her analysis of ‘diminuendo’ lettering.

The event has left us feeling inspired by the work that everyone is doing and excited to be working with manuscripts at such a pivotal time. We are grateful to all the participants for sharing their ideas, to Bernard Meehan (Trinity College Dublin) and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (National University of Ireland, Galway) for being our hosts and guides, and to the National University of Ireland, Galway; Trinity College, Dublin; the Royal Irish Academy and the National Museum of Ireland for their hospitality. We would also like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for their funding, and Joanna Story and Jessica Hodgkinson for organising the workshop.

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Workshop participants examine fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 55). Photo credit Joanna Story.

Don’t miss the chance to see many highlights of Insular manuscript production in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, opening at the British Library on 19 October 2018.

 

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24 May 2018

‘The Earth is, in fact, round’

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It’s a major peeve of many medieval historians: the popular belief that people who lived before Christopher Columbus thought that the world was flat. It is actually rare to find groups in the classical, Late Antique and medieval eras who believed in the flat Earth. On the contrary, numerous ancient thinkers, navigators and artists observed that the Earth was round.

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Miniature of the Earth in a circle, with personifications of the four cardinal points, made in England in the 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Egerton MS 843, f. 23r 

The first recorded, unambiguous European references to a spherical Earth are found in the work of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle. By the time the Roman writer Pliny the Elder was writing the first part of his Natural History around AD 77, the fact that the Earth is a sphere was treated as common knowledge: ‘We all agree on the earth’s shape. For surely we always speak of the round ball of the Earth’ (Pliny, Natural History, II.64).

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Opening page of a much later copy of Pliny’s Historia naturalis, made in Rome in 1457 or 1458: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

These views continued into the medieval period, since even the changing hours of daylight throughout the year made it evident that the Earth was round. Around 723 or 725, the monk Bede explained to his students:

‘The reason why the same days are of unequal length is the roundness of the Earth, for not without reason is it called ‘‘the orb of the world’’ on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, a sphere set in the middle of the whole universe. It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions ...’ (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 91).

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Explanation of the Earth as a sphere, from a copy of Bede, De Temporum Ratione, made in England or Normandy, late 11th or early 12th century: Royal MS 13 A XI, f. 62r  

This belief was also reflected in many medieval maps. Round diagrams of the Earth were included in the works of Isidore of Seville. Meanwhile, a map that was often circulated with the work of the 5th-century writer Macrobius showed the climate zones of Earth divided into northern and southern hemispheres.

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Diagram of the habitable zones of the Earth, from Macrobius, Commentarii in Ciceronis Somnium Scipionis, France or England: Add MS 11943, f. 38v
 

The idea that the Earth was round was not limited to tracts on science and natural history. Much medieval art also depicted the Earth as a sphere. For this reason, depictions of God the Creator often show him holding a compass, a tool used to draw round objects.

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Depiction of God creating the Earth with a compass and scales, from the Tiberius Psalter, Winchester, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius C VI, f. 7v

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Depiction of God the Creator holding a compass, from a Bible historiale made in Paris and Clairefontaine, 1411: Royal MS 19 D III, f. 3r

Many writers also assumed the Earth was a sphere. Dante’s Divine Comedy even discussed how the shape of the world created different time zones, and how different stars were visible in the southern and northern hemispheres.

Of course, even though earlier thinkers knew the world was round, they did not fully understand how it worked. Without a theory of gravity, Pliny struggled to understand how people who lived in the southern hemisphere did not fall off the world, while Bede denied that anyone lived in the southern hemisphere at all. (Bede was wrong, as you can see in the British Library’s summer 2018 exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages.) 

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Diagrams using human figures to show the round shape of Earth, from a copy of Gossuin de Metz’s ‘L’Image du Monde’ made in Bruges, 1464: Royal MS 19 A IX, f. 42r 

Nevertheless, there is one thing on which most human thinkers, for most of history, have agreed — as Bede put it, 'the Earth is, in fact, a sphere'.

Alison Hudson

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20 March 2018

Call the medieval midwife

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Tucked away in a 14th-century encyclopaedia and bestiary is an oath written alongside a black cross. The person who made it had borrowed the book, and identified themselves as ‘abestetrix', echoing the Latin ‘obstetrix’, meaning ‘midwife’. (Another hand has glossed this as 'heifmoeder’.) Midwifery was as vital in the medieval world as it is today. Medieval manuscripts can provide a variety of evidence for the hardships, mysteries and triumphs of this historic profession.

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Detail of an oath written by a midwife: Add MS 11390, f. 94v

Accounts of famous births from history are often accompanied by illustrations of the birthing chamber, depicting midwives and their female companions. This image accompanies the account of the birth of St Edmund in John Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund. The new mother lies in bed, tended by her companions, while the baby is warmed before the fire.

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Miniature of the birth of St Edmund, from Lydgate's Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund, England, 1434–1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 13v

The caesarean birth of Julius Caesar is frequently illustrated in medieval accounts of his life. Many of these illustrations depict men performing the caesarean, most likely because of the more surgical nature of the procedure. However, it may not have been uncommon for midwives to perform a caesarean themselves. These two illustrations of Caesar's birth depicts a midwife pulling the baby from the mother, accompanied by a female attendant, and the same birth, with a man playing the midwife's role.

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a female midwife: Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 219r

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Miniature of the birth of Julius Caesar, showing a man performing the caesarean: Royal MS 16 G VIII, f. 32r

Information on pregnancy and childbirth was also included in medical treatises. Copied into one 15th-century manuscript is a gynaecological text taken from Gilbertus Anglicus’ Compendium of Medicine. The text is accompanied by illustrations of foetuses in the womb, depicted in a variety of unusual positions. It is difficult to determine whether this work would ever have been consulted by a woman. The manuscript's first known owner was Richard Ferris, sergeant surgeon to Elizabeth I, the queen who famously never married or had children. 

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Roundels showing various foetal presentations: Sloane MS 2463, f. 218v

Books may not have been an unusual sight in the birthing chamber, as women were known to have had texts read aloud to them while they were in labour. The Passio of St Margaret was a popular choice. St Margaret is thought to have emerged from a dragon's womb ‘unharmed and without any pain’, and came to be widely regarded as the patron saint of women in childbirth. Many manuscripts of the Passio of St Margaret are accompanied by instructions to bless the expectant mother with a copy of the Passio to secure the safe delivery of her child.

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Miniature of a woman lying in a bed screened by a curtain, with a swaddled infant held by a midwife (the miniature has been smudged by kissing): Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

In the 14th century, relics of St Margaret’s girdle were often used as birthing aids. One 15th-century amulet roll (Harley Ch 43 A 14), which is thought to have been used as a birth girdle, contains a text in Middle English invoking the protection of the Cross, specifically referencing childbirth. This invocation was likely read aloud, perhaps by the midwife, as the girdle was worn by the expectant mother. Invocations to aid pregnancy and childbirth were also used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English Lacnunga contains a charm to be used by women who struggled to carry a child to term. The text includes a set of prose introductions and a series of short poems intended to be recited aloud in a ritual process: 

Se wífman, se hire cild áfédan ne mæg, gange tó gewitenes mannes birgenne and stæppe þonne þríwa ofer þá byrgenne and cweþe þonne þríwa þás word:
þis mé tó bóte Ã¾Ç½re láþan lætbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte Ã¾Ç½re swǽran swǽrbyrde,
þis mé tó bóte Ã¾Ç½re láðan lambyrde.

'Let that woman who cannot nourish her child walk to the grave of a departed person and then step three times over the burial, and then say these words three times:
this as my remedy for the hateful late birth, this as my remedy for the oppressive heavy birth, this as my remedy for the hateful lame birth.'

(translated by Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: A Collective Edition (New York, 1942))

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A charm for ‘delayed birth’ in Lacnunga: Harley MS 585, f. 185r

It is difficult to prove that midwives were literate or regularly consulted texts in the medieval period. However, many medical manuscripts often included information regarding childbirth and the written word was certainly not out of place in the birthing chamber. The midwife who made the oath to return the book may not have been the only member of her profession to be borrowing books in the 14th century.

 

Becky Lawton

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16 January 2018

Leonardo da Vinci on the Moon

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One of the great thrills of curating our blockbuster exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic, has been choosing the exhibits and revisiting some of our favourite manuscripts. When we were planning the show, I often used to impress people by mentioning certain of the books and objects we were intending to display: medieval manuscripts, Chinese oracle bones and, oh yes, something written by somebody called Leonardo da Vinci, "you may have heard of him?" At this point heads always turned, and I knew we'd captured everyone's attention.

So what exactly was I talking about, when I mentioned that Leonardo's writings would be featured in the exhibition? You may be aware that Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the great inventor, scientist and artist, made copious notes throughout his career. These were gathered into a series of notebooks, one of which is today preserved at the British Library in London, where it is known as the ‘Codex Arundel’ (after a former owner, the Earl of Arundel): its shelfmark is Arundel MS 263 and it can be viewed in its entirety on our Digitised Manuscripts site. The notes are written in Italian, and if you examine the writing closely, you immediately recognise that they are in Leonardo's characteristic mirror handwriting, reading from right to left.

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Leonardo da Vinci's notebook (Italy, c. 1506-08): Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

One page from Leonardo's notebook seemed particularly appropriate to show in the Astronomy room of Harry Potter: A History of Magic, alongside objects such as an Arabic astrolabe and the oldest surviving manuscript which charts the night sky (made in China around the year AD 700). The diagram shown here describes the reflection of light, according to the alignments of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Leonardo da Vinci’s illustration shows the Sun and Moon revolving round the Earth, accepting the theory popularised by the Greek astronomer, Ptolemy (d. c. AD 170), that the Earth occupied the centre of the universe. Leonardo was writing, of course, approximately 100 years before the invention of the telescope.

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A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's notebook, showing the reflection of light: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

On the right-hand side of this page are two diagrams showing the Earth and Moon. The second of these supports Leonardo's belief that the Moon was covered with water, and that its surface would operate like a convex mirror, reflecting light. We may no longer believe this to be true (everyone knows that the Moon is made of cream cheese) but it's always fascinating to get a first-hand insight into the mind of a genius such as Leonardo da Vinci. Placing his notebook on display in our Harry Potter exhibition has enabled more of our visitors to come face-to-face with this intriguing document. Maybe we will have inspired some of the astronomers and scientists of the future, who have been coming to see the exhibition in their thousands.

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The Earth and Moon in Leonardo da Vinci's notebook: Arundel MS 263, f. 104r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on show at the British Library in London until 28 February 2018. There has been a huge demand for tickets, so we strongly urge you to book in advance of your visit.

 

Julian Harrison (Lead Curator, Harry Potter: A History of Magic)

 

 

26 December 2017

You cannot be Sirius

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Fans of a certain boy wizard will be familiar with Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s beloved godfather. In the Harry Potter books, Sirius Black was an Animagus, with the ability to turn into a shaggy-haired black dog. This is no coincidence, as his name was inspired by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which lies in the constellation known as Canis major (The Greater Dog). The British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic explores the history, mythology and folklore behind the Harry Potter stories, and we are delighted that it features a wonderful 12th-century astronomical treatise (Cotton MS Tiberius C I), containing an elaborate illustration and description of the constellation Sirius.

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The constellation of Sirius the Dog Star, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 28r

This manuscript was produced at the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew in Peterborough, sometime in the early decades of the 12th century. The astronomical treatise it contains is known as the Aratea, being a Latin translation (by Marcus Tullius Cicero) of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli. The description of each constellation is accompanied by a pen-drawing of either human or animal figures, with red dots representing the stars. In this instance, the constellation Sirius takes the shape of a dog, with the words written in black ink.

The body of Sirius (and the other figures in this manuscript) is infilled with an account of the origins and history of each constellation. They comprise quotations from the Astronomica written by Hyginus, an astronomical source-book. Sirius, from the Greek seirios aster, meaning ‘scorching star’, was thought to have been named by the Egyptian goddess Isis, because the star shone more brightly than any other. The dog days of summer were so-called because the hottest days of the year traditionally coincided when the Dog Star ascended to rise before the Sun, from late July until August.

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The constellation of Orion, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 27v

Sirius was also said to be the hunting dog of Orion. The constellation Orion is portrayed in the same manuscript as a man inside a house. According to the Astronomica of Hyginus, Orion was accidentally slain by the goddess Diana, as the result of a challenge that she could not hit him with one of her hunting arrows. To mourn his death, she placed him among the constellations. Bellatrix, meaning ‘female warrior’, is the third brightest star in the Orion constellation. Other figures in the night sky include the Hare, the Eagle, the Swan and the Centaur. The last-named was believed to be highly skilled in augury, that is, the interpretation of omens.

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The centaur was highly skilled in the interpretation of omens: the Centaur constellation, from Cotton MS Tiberius C I, f. 31v

Would you like to stargaze more? This illustrated Aratea has been digitised by the Polonsky Foundation England and France, 700-1200 project. It is now available to view online on our Digitised Manuscripts site. Two other copies of the Aratea can also be seen in full there, one made in 9th-century France and later taken to Canterbury (Harley MS 647) and the other made at Fleury around the year 1000 (Harley MS 2506).

Meanwhile, the wonderful manuscript illustrated above is currently on display in the Astronomy section of the British Library’s major exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Tickets can be purchased online, but they are selling extremely fast. The show has to end on 28 February, so catch it while you can.

 

Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

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13 December 2017

British Library manuscripts in Glass exhibition at the Musée de Cluny

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Two British Library manuscripts are featured in the exhibition, Le Verre, un Moyen Âge inventif (‘Glass, the Inventive Middle Ages’), at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, which opened on 20 September and runs until 8 January 2018. A collection of miniatures from a treatise on the Vices and Virtues and a 13th-century copy of Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius are two of nearly 150 objects that include glassware, illuminated manuscripts, engravings and paintings as part of an examination of the use of glass throughout the Middle Ages.

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Miniature of a tavern scene with men drinking illustrating Gluttony, and below a cellarer passing up a drink, from a treatise on the Vices and Virtues (fragment), Genoa, c. 1330–1340: Add MS 27695, f. 14r

The scene above is an image originally bound with a 14th-century treatise on the Seven Vices (now Add MS 27695) by a member of the Cocharelli family of Genoa. Possibly used to instruct the children of the family on the seven deadly sins, the painting depicts four men representing Gluttony as they drink in an Italian tavern. The scene also features a variety of glassware: the moderate drinker on the left sips from a glass, the excessive drinkers beside him both drink from bottles and glass, and the drinker on the right has dropped his bottle as he vomits. The cellarer below is passing the drinkers a refilled glass, and his additional glasses are visible on a shelf beside him.

During the 14th century, northern Italy was a leading centre in the production of glass for domestic and scientific use. Venetian glassmakers specialised in making high quality, colourless glassware made from quartz pebbles from the Italian mainland and plant ash from Egypt and Syria. By the Renaissance, the glass industry of Venice was booming with spectacular glassware used to celebrate special occasions across Europe. As prized status symbols in events such as the marriage ceremonies of noblemen and women, Venetian glassware featured opulent glass imitating semiprecious stones, gilding and enamelling.

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Scientific diagram on optics, from Roger Bacon’s Perspectiva, S. England(?), 4th quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 7 F VIII, f. 54v

As well as domestic glass, medieval glass was used to create scientific apparatuses and invent life-changing tools. The 13th-century English friar and scholar Roger Bacon produced major works on natural philosophy and mathematics, including the Opus Maius, which he sent to the Pope in 1267 or 1268. In this treatise of over 800 pages, Bacon examined topics ranging from celestial bodies to gunpowder. The British Library holds what is thought to be the earliest manuscript copy of several of Bacon’s works (now Royal MS 7 F VIII). This copy features the text of Bacon’s work on optics known as the Perspectiva, in which he describes the properties of light, colour and vision. His study of mirrors and lenses greatly influenced the scientific community, leading to the invention of reading glasses and magnifying glasses. In 1289, the Florentine writer Sandro di Popozo commented in a treatise on the conduct of family that, ‘I am so debilitated by age that without the glasses known as spectacles, I would no longer be able to read and write.’

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Scientific diagrams, from Roger Bacon’s Perspectiva, S. England(?), 4th quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 7 F VIII, f. 89v

Le Verre, un Moyen Âge inventif runs at the Musée de Cluny, Paris (Musée national du Moyen Âge) from 20 September 2017 until 8 January 2018: see this press release for further details.

 

Alison Ray

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

07 December 2017

How to harvest a mandrake

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As a general rule, we don't normally give gardening advice on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. It's just possible, however, that you may have been contemplating the best way to harvest a mandrake. And so here we provide you with some handy tips on cultivating this most notorious of plants, based on manuscripts in the British Library's collections.

A cure for insanity

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that mandrakes (mandragora) could cure headaches, earache, gout and insanity. At the same time, it was supposed that this plant was particularly hazardous to harvest, because its roots resembled the human form; when pulled from the ground, its shrieks could cause madness.

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The root of a mandrake, carved to resemble a tiny human, on loan from the Science Museum to the British Library's exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic

Identify your mandrake

You would think this was simple, but it was long believed that there were two different sexes of mandrake (which we have always been tempted to call the 'mandrake' and 'womandrake'). This beautiful 14th-century manuscript is currently on show in the British Library's Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition. It contains an Arabic version of De materia medica, originally written in Ancient Greek by Pedanius Dioscorides, who worked as a physician in the Roman army. Dioscorides was one of the first authors to distinguish (mistakenly) between the male and female mandrake, as depicted here. In fact, there is more than one species of mandrake native to the Mediterranean, rather than two sexes of the same plant.

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This mandrake, on the other hand, is quite clearly (ahem) the male of the species ...

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Below are two mandrakes, one male, one female, drawn in the lower margin of the Queen Mary Psalter â€” hanging upside down, their blood is clearly rushing to their heads.

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It's also advisable not to confuse your mandrake with a gonk, with an elephant (yes, they are elephants), or with a dragon.

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Bring a dog

Medieval plant-collectors devised an elaborate method to harvest mandrakes. The best way to obtain one safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching the plant to a dog with a cord. A horn should then be sounded, drowning out the shrieking while at the same time startling the dog, causing it to drag out the mandrake. This medieval mandrake looks resigned to its fate.

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While this mandrake is blushing with shame at the prospect of being pulled out of the ground ...

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This Anglo-Saxon hound has yet to be tied to the mandrake (is that a ball that has distracted it attention?).

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Stuff your ears with earth

Another trick was to stuff your ears with clods of earth before attempting to pull the mandrake from the ground. The gentleman in the red cap below has done exactly this, and is blowing resoundingly upon his horn: perfect technique!

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You can see some of these mandrakes in the British Library's current major exhibition, devoted to the history of magic across the ages. Tickets can be purchased online, but are selling extremely fast: the show has to end on 28 February, try not to miss it!

Julian Harrison

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The manuscripts featured in this post

Or 3366: Baghdad, 14th century

Sloane MS 4016: Herbal, Lombardy, 15th century

Royal MS 2 B VII: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 14th century

Sloane MS 278: Bestiary, France, 13th century

Harley MS 1585: Herbal, Southern Netherlands, 12th century

Sloane MS 1975: Medical and herbal miscellany, England or Northern France, 12th century

Cotton MS Vitellius C III: Herbal, England, 11th century

Harley MS 3736: Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal, Southern Germany(?), 15th century