Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

What do Magna Carta, Beowulf and the world's oldest Bibles have in common? They are all cared for by the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Section. This blog publicises our digitisation projects and other activities. Follow us on Twitter: @blmedieval. Read more

14 November 2019

Classics lost and found

Works written by ancient Greek and Roman authors have made a major impact on the world’s culture and society. They profoundly shaped medieval thought, as you can discover in Cillian O’Hogan’s article The Classical Past on the Polonsky England and France 700-1200 project website. Compared to their afterlife and significance, however, the number of classical writings that have actually survived is surprisingly low. Why were some works lost while others survived, and where can you find them?

A decorated initial in a medieval manuscript, featuring a bird-human hybrid creature.
Beginning of the book on the nature of the birds from Pliny’s Natural History: England, 2nd half of 12th century, Arundel MS 98, f. 85v

A large number of classical texts do not survive at all. For example, we have only about a third of the works of Aristotle. His famous treatise on laughter and comedy – desperately sought in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – has not come down to us. Some highly acclaimed pieces of ancient Greek lyrical poetry, such as Sappho’s poems, have also disappeared.

Many ancient plays, both in Greek and Latin, are only known by name. Various works of epic poetry, such as Cicero’s famous poem on his own historical significance, humbly titled On my own consulship, do not survive. Nor is there any trace of a substantial proportion of scientific and historical writings by ancient Greek and Roman authors. Sometimes we have hints of works only, such as this parchment book tag which used to serve as a 'title page' to a scroll containing Sophron’s Comedies on Women from the 5th century BC, now lost.

A piece of ancient papyrus bearing Greek writing
A book tag (syllibos) with the title of a lost papyrus scroll said to have contained Sophron’s Comedies on Women: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 1-2nd century, Papyrus 801

Traditionally, barbarian invasions and Christian monks have been blamed for intentionally destroying works of the classical past. The image of burning books and libraries is often evoked in scholarship, fiction and films alike. While this may have occasionally occurred, the biggest deciding factor for the survival or disappearance of classical texts is actually likely to be their use in medieval school education.

The reason for this is that works that made it onto school curricula tended to be copied more, so medieval scribes preserved them in large numbers. Texts that proved to be too difficult or unsuitable for use in schools were more prone to being lost. For example, of the 142 books of Livy’s exceptionally long work, The History of Rome from its Foundation, from the 1st century BC, only 35 books have survived intact, with the rest preserved only in extracts abridged for school use.

An ancient wooden tablet bearing a Greek inscription
An example of a classical text surviving through use in school - eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century, Add MS 33293

School curricula also explain why ancient grammatical literature was transmitted in surprising quantities across medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, including educational material for the study not only of Latin but also of ancient Greek. Popular texts, such as Priscian’s 5th-century Institutes of Latin Grammar, survive in large numbers, sometimes annotated with glosses or notes added in classrooms, as in this example from 11th-century France.

A medieval manuscript page containing lots of glosses and beginning with a decorated initial C.
A heavily annotated title page from an copy of a grammatical textbook by Priscian, which was widely used in medieval schools: France, 11th century, Harley MS 2763, f. 1r

Although schools filtered the classical tradition rather heavily, omitting a number of texts that we would now be eager to read, the ancient schoolmasters had a surprisingly broad literary grasp. We have works on ancient mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and encyclopaedic works such as Pliny’s Natural History. The works of Homer in the Eastern Mediterranean and Virgil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid in the West all survived thanks to their inclusion in late antique and medieval secondary education.

This key role of schools in the transmission of the classical past sheds a special light on other surviving texts, too. Ancient Roman plays, for example, have come down to us not as scripts for theatrical performances but rather as school manuals. They were used to teach students how to find the right words, tone and style to use in various situations, from speeches at courts to creative writing, as in this copy of the plays by the 2nd-century BC playwright, Terence.

A medieval manuscript page
An annotated school copy of comedies by Terence: Germany, 11th century, Harley MS 2750,  f. 65r

But besides medieval manuscripts, there is another source which reveals additional clues about classical texts: the papyri preserved in the sand of Egypt. The large number of papyrus fragments excavated at various sites in Egypt have already filled many of the gaps in our knowledge of the Classics. They have supplied us with lost works by Aristotle (The Constitution of Athens), almost complete comedies (such as The Hated Man by the 4th-century BC Menander), and unique fragments from Sappho, alongside remarkable survivals of ancient science. Many of these amazing finds are in the British Library’s collections and are presented in articles on our Greek Manuscripts website.

A damaged fragment of ancient papyrus with Greek writing on.
Papyrus fragment showing the last lines and close (colophon) of Menander’s comedy, The Hated Man: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, 4th century, Papyrus 3077

Here, you will find more on the Aristotle papyrus, a remarkable medical fragment and some carbonised scrolls from the destroyed city of Herculaneum.

Whether preserved in medieval libraries or in archaeological sites, the works of the classical past continue to inspire us. As work on the British Library’s collection of ancient texts continues worldwide, we hope that there are many more discoveries to come.

Peter Toth

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05 November 2019

‘Coppie the words but burne this paper’

So wrote Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton to his friend and confidante, the antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, in 1606. The letter appears (at f. 160r) in a wide-ranging volume of Northampton’s letters and papers covering the period from 1567 until his death in 1614 (Cotton MS Titus C VI, from which all references following come).

The Earl of Northampton's letter to Robert Cotton

Northampton's letter to Robert Cotton: Cotton MS Titus C VI, f. 160r

It is always fascinating to historians when letters survive which the recipient was supposed to burn: what indiscreet or seditious words might be revealed? So it at first sight odd that this seems to be about an author objecting to somebody changing the title of a book. But the book in question had a broader significance. A New and Perfecte Relation of the whole proceedings against the late most barbarous Traytors was a full-dress presentation of the government case against the Gunpowder Plotters, and against Henry Garnett, Jesuit Superior in England, who had known about the Plot, and tried to prevent it, but been bound by the seal of the confessional. The tract relates the trials of the Plotters and Garnett, the speeches made at their trials by peers and law officers, and the traitor’s fate inflicted on Garnett.

Northampton, a key figure in the regime, had been chosen — or perhaps chose himself — to produce this statement of the government position (for what follows, see ff. 142r–143v, 150r–160v). He had evidently been considering a book on the subject as early as the Plotters’ trial in late January 1606, at which he was present. He then sent a note to Sir Robert Cotton asking him if he had among his ‘monumentes’ a collection of pre-Conquest laws; if so, he was to let the bearer of this letter bring them to him ‘to good purpose’. The book that followed was written after Garnett’s execution on 3 May 1606.

Portrait of Henry Howard  Earl of Northampton

Portrait of Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton (d. 1614)

Northampton drew heavily on Cotton’s editorial work and assistance: asking him to insert pages, correct mistakes, read over passages, and provide manuscripts and published works. The Earl’s letters to Cotton suggest an easy relationship in which they were close collaborators. Northampton’s biographer, Linda Levy Peck, has highlighted Cotton’s role in producing the work, while suggesting that Cotton may have influenced its central historical argument (Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I [London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982], p. 112).    

The book in question had a contentious history. The first part was presented before King James I, who was evidently a strong supporter of it. He backed it then (to the ‘applause’ of ‘the best affected’), overriding the objections of the Lord Admiral, the Earl of Nottingham. The book was then referred to the King’s eldest son, Prince Henry, to report and advise, where Northampton feared a difficult meeting. One objection was that they were giving the Plotters too much of the oxygen of publicity: rather, Northampton believed the text itself provided the ‘medecin for the malady’.

The medicine was partly in Northampton’s speech printed in the volume against the Plotter Sir Everard Digby, denying claims that the King had broken his promise of toleration to Catholics by saying that it was a promise that had never been made. Even more, his speech at Garnett’s trial ballooned into a treatise which combined recent events with patristic and medieval history, denying the power of the Pope to depose monarchs and influence and have a say in the secular sphere. The ‘speech’, which both title-page and publisher’s note admitted was much bigger than had been delivered, was just over 200 pages, slightly under half the book.

As the book was about to go to the King’s printer, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, Lord Treasurer, intervened to change its title; his handwriting is unmistakeable and there is no doubt who Northampton meant when he wrote to Cotton, ‘Worthy knight by theas additions you may find whose eie hath examined this businesse’. Below is the original title with Salisbury’s crossings-out and interlineations (marked \ / and here italicized;  Salisbury crossed out some of his own words):

‘A true and perfecte relation of the whole proceedinges againste the late moste barbarous  Traytors \Garnett a Jesuittt and his confederattes/ together with \containyng/ sondry speaches delyvered and reviewed by the Lordes Commissioners but principally by the right honourable the Earle of Northampton enlarged upon special occasions, at Garnettes arraignement, and lastely all what passed at Garnettes execution \at ther Arraignments for the better satisfaction of amongst the stood standers by those that were hearers as occasion was offred,/

A True and Perfect Relation title page

A True and Perfect Relation of the whole proceedings against the late most barbarous Traitors, Garnet, a Jesuite, and his confederats (London, 1606)

Northampton may have been furious at the demoting of his role in the title, but there is an oddity. What most bothered Salisbury was the phrase ‘reviewed by the Lordes Commissioners’, the peers who sat at the Plotters' trial. Salisbury allowed Northampton to appear in a sub-title which Northampton wrote himself ‘in a kind of distinction and separation from the rest’. The sub-title read, ‘The Earle of Northamptones last speech having bene enlarged upon those growndes which are set downe, and lastely all that passed at Garnettes exegution’. The published title-page is as amended by Salisbury with Northampton’s sub-title.

Northampton’s speech against Garnett was a statement of his Catholic loyalism. He was what historians call a Church papist or a crypto-Catholic: a ‘religious outlook, which accommodated inner commitment to the Roman Catholic church with a later acceptance of the need for outward conformity to the worship of the Church of England’ (Pauline Croft in Oxford DNB). The same volume of Northampton’s papers in which this letter appears includes much devotional writing, including a poem by the Catholic martyr Robert Southwell, ‘Of the blessed Sacram[en]ts of the alter’ (ff. 516r–575v; the poem is ff. 535r–536v). He was perhaps distancing himself from a past when he had been under intermittent suspicion by the Elizabethan regime (arrested five times, gaoled in the Fleet prison and at other times under house arrest). He was also restating his loyalty to James I and the house of Stuart: under Elizabeth he had been a supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots (though, he later claimed, always within the bounds of prudent advice to Mary and loyalty to Elizabeth), and would later write the epitaph for her tomb in Westminster Abbey. As a loyal Catholic, he was distancing himself from traitorous ones. And, as the Venetian ambassador noted, ‘The fact that the author has been and still is reckoned a Catholic is expected to lend the work a greater authority’ (Peck, Northampton, p. 112). That fact was, of course, put at the front of the work in both the original and (thanks to Northampton himself) revised titles, where the reader would see his name even if they were not be able to work though Northampton’s dense prose.

Northampton’s anger perhaps also reflects a certain thin-skinnedness. He was able to take some criticism, and asked Cotton to correct some errors that Salisbury had spotted. But he could also take criticism personally: a sense of himself and Cotton against carping critics. Nottingham he described as beaten by the king’s grave judgment ‘from certain weak sconces to which he fled in distresse’, whilst another critic he described as ‘mad’, ‘vexed’ and ‘a shamelesse brazen face’ (ff. 154r, 154v).

That over-sensitivity perhaps goes back to Northampton’s own past. Lord Henry Howard was the younger son of a great family which had fallen with the execution for treason of his elder brother Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk, in 1572. Howard did not under-estimate his own cleverness (as a reader in Rhetoric in Cambridge in the 1560s the only nobleman to hold a university teaching position in the period), and the 1606 book is a display of his (as well as Cotton’s) scholarship. But he spent many years under Elizabeth on the fringes, suspected by all sides. He expended the time in lengthy treatises and masses of unpublished drafts (such as much of ff. 203r–406v). Although his prospects improved in the 1590s, it was only when James I became king that Lord Henry Howard came into power and position as Earl of Northampton.

Northampton also evidently had a tangled relationship with Salisbury, with whom he had, and continued, to collaborate. But collaboration was not friendship: he later referred to Salisbury as a ‘black sowle’ (f. 134v). This letter shows one great man at Court angry at being told what to do by an even greater one. Northampton may also have resented the kow-towing he had made to Robert Cecil and his father Lord Burghley under Elizabeth — deferential letters enforced by the fall of his ancient house, written to those who had prospered. Northampton’s words against Salisbury explain not only why he was angry but why he wanted the letter destroyed: words against the powerful Lord Treasurer which were fit for his confidante Cotton, but which he did not want falling into the wrong hands.

The Somerset House Conference 19 August 1604

Salisbury and Northampton at the Somerset House conference, 19 August 1604 (Salisbury is on the front right and Northampton next to him)

There was, of course, another reason for the sharpened sensitivity of Northampton and his book. Had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded in blowing up the Parliament House, Northampton — as well as Salisbury, Nottingham, King James, Prince Henry and the MP Sir Robert Cotton — would all have been among the many dead.

 

Tim Wales

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31 October 2019

How to survive Halloween

On All Hallow’s Eve, also known as Halloween, witches are often said to congregate at Sabbaths. Celtic belief had it that, on the eve of Samhain, the boundary between our world and the Otherworld was at its weakest, allowing evil spirits and fairies to cross over. Just to be on the safe side, we've delved into our manuscripts to find forms of protection against any evil lurking out there.

Image of 2 witches colluding with a demon and then mixing a potion

Witches colluding with a demon (2nd quarter of the 15th century): Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 70r

If you encounter a witch of the evil kind, we recommend that you consult Harley MS 3831 (recently re-catalogued as part of our Harley project). It features 16th-century ‘charms’ (spells using elements from prayers and incantations) against witchcraft, containing formulas from the Canon of Mass, divine names, and this prayer against evil:

‘Against witchcrafte:

Hec dona + hec munera + hec sacra sancta sacrificia illibata + hostia sacra sancta + Imemerata + Algramachi + Agla + tetragramaton + homo + natus + nathas + natha + Nathaniell + Barmatha. +

Another for Wi[t]chcr[a]fte:

In the name of Jesus christe be With me and forgive me my synnes / thetarnall god Lorde blesse me and deliver me from all eville [in the] in the name of the father and of the sonne and of the holy ghoste Amen.’  

Charms against witchcraft

Charms against witchcraft (16th century): Harley MS 3831, f. 11r

According to another manuscript, Sloane MS 3824, you might alternatively wear an amulet containing magical seals inscribed with the names of God and the Evangelists, and a binding spell for witches:

‘I binde these Witches […] by the vertue of all these holy Characters herein written, that these Witches […] may have noe power at any tyme or tymes hereafter upon me [Name], The Bearer hereof.’

An amulet designed to ward off witches

An amulet against witches (17th century): Sloane MS 3824, f. 70v

Don’t panic if you are bewitched. Simply follow these instructions provided by Sloane MS 3706: boil your urine over a fire, add to it a pinch of salt, and recite the opening of the Gospel of St John (‘In the beginning was the Word’) over it three times. Three needles should be put in the brew, while invoking the names of God, and reciting a prayer to break the witch’s power:   

‘Against witchcrafte proved and to unwitch the partie bewitched:

Take the parties water greved, and set it over the fier and put into it a Little salte, then reade the gospel of St Jhon for Christmas day .3. times and when the vreu [‘brew’] doth begin to boyle, have in a redines .3. needles, and in puttinge them into the vreu one after another, you must say in putting in the first, you must say, “one in godes name”, in putting in the second, say, “twoe in godes name”, and so for the thirde, say, “three in godes name”. Then say, “In the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghost”. Amen. Even as this vreu doth waste consume and burne, so may his, hir, or theyer witchecraftes, Inchauntments or sorceries or any other which hath bewitched .N. may returne, and lighte upon themselves againe, and that by the most vertues names of god: “Tetragramaton. Alpha et omega. Messias. Sother. Emanuel. Unigenitus. Vita. Via. Jesus Christus. Amen. By these holie names of god. I drive and curse thee, and swear you from your office and dignitie. I doe drive you by the virtue of them, into the nether pitt of hellfier, there to remaine and burne with unquenchable fier, till the day of Judgment, Excepte that you doe cause that even as this vreu doth waste consume and burne, so may his, hir, or theier witchcraft that bewitched N[ame]. thy servaunt returne again and light upon themselves againe”. Say this three times over and at every time say our Lordes prayer. And at the same hower and time that the praier is said an alteration shalbe in the partie bewitched, and so by godes grace it shall mende afterwardes.’

Instructions for unwitching

Instructions for ‘unwitching’ (late 16th or early 17th century): Sloane MS 3706, f. 23r

Evil spirits, like witches, can also be countered by making amulets against them. Here are some examples from a 17th-century English roll with sixty-three magical seals:

Three magical seals against evil spirits

Magical seals against evil spirits (England, 17th century): Add MS 25311

You should also be wary of elves. English manuscripts as early as the 8th century warned against them. A 15th-century charm in Sloane MS 963 put them on a par with demons and provided a powerful conjuration against them:  

‘I conjure and call upon you elves and all the offspring and seed of the devil and of diabolical deception, through the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, that you, from now on, may not have the power to harm this servant of God [Name].’ 

‘Coniuro vos elfas et contestor et omne genus et semen diabolicum et diabolice fraudis per patrem et filium et spiritum Sanctum ut non habeatis de cetero potestatem nocendi hinc famulo dei N.’

A charm against elves and demons

A charm against elves and demons (15th century): Sloane MS 963, f. 15r

It might be wise to recite a charm against elves and demons from Sloane MS 962 before going to bed. Aside from keeping you safe while awake, it will also protect you against nightmares — often thought to be caused by malign entities such as ‘mares’ and elves. It does so by invoking the names of the Seven Sleepers, who, according to popular legend, were a group of 3rd-century Christians from Ephesus. During the Roman persecution under Emperor Decius, they retreated to a mountain cave to pray. Having fallen asleep, the Romans sealed them inside the cave, but with divine protection they woke up only when the cave was reopened, more than 300 years later. Medieval charms often invoked them for safety during sleep:

‘I conjure you elves and all the nightly or daily troubles of demons, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit […] and by the intercession of all saints and by the Seven Sleepers whose names are as follows: Malchus, Maximian, Dionysius, John, Constantine, Serapion, Martinian […] that you may not harm or do any evil to or attack this servant of God [Name], neither while sleeping nor waking.’

‘Coniuro vos elves et omnia gravamina demoniorum nocturna sive diuturna per patrem et filium et spiritum sanctum […] et per intercessionem omni sanctorum et per septem dormentes hos quorum nomina sunt hec Malchus Maximianus Dionsisus Johannes Constantinus Seraphion Martinianus […] ut non noceatis neque aliquis mali facitis vel inferatis hinc famulo dei N. neque dormiendo neque vigilando.’

Another charm against elves and demons

A charm against elves and demons (15th century): Sloane MS 962, f. 9v

We hope these charms and amulets will help you ward off any evils on Halloween. Sweet dreams!

 

Clarck Drieshen

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