THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

Introduction

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

12 July 2019

Underwater adventures

The British Library’s current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), investigates the great thinker’s fascination with water. But Leonardo was not the first to send his imagination plunging beneath the waves. Here are some of the ways that medieval people imagined being able to explore underwater.

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Leonardo’s studies of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

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Beowulf dives into the mere, Beowulf, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 166r

In the Anglo-Saxon period, underwater exploration belonged to the world of heroic poetry rather than human technology. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the hero journeys to the bottom of a horrifying mere to fight Grendel’s Mother in her watery lair. He dresses in full war-gear, a mail-shirt and a gold boar-embellished helmet, and arms himself with a precious sword named Hrunting. Then after briefly settling his affairs in case of his death, he dives into the lake:

The man of the Weder-Geats moved briskly, would hardly wait for an answer; the surging water took possession of the war-maker. It was then a good part of the day before he could make out the level bottom (Translation by R. D. Fulk).

In a hall in the depths of the lake, Beowulf and Grendel’s Mother engage in a ferocious fight. For a long time the adversaries seem to be evenly matched, but the decisive moment comes when Beowulf notices an enormous sword that was made by giants in ancient times. He grabs the sword and swings it at the lake-woman, slicing off her head.

The poem makes no attempt to explain how Beowulf is able to survive underwater—he just can. His status as a legendary hero and the strongest man alive places him outside the ordinary limits of human ability. In a world of giants, dragons, magical swords and cursed treasure, the hero is a supernatural figure. Beowulf is up to any challenge, no diving apparatus required.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 77v

Another of medieval literature’s most memorable underwater adventures is that of Alexander the Great. The ancient Macedonian king and formidable military commander was one of the greatest heroes of medieval romance. One episode associated with Alexander in the romance tradition describes how he travels to the bottom of the sea to explore its wonders.

Unlike Beowulf, Alexander is hampered by the real-world necessity of having to breathe. To solve this, he designs an air-tight barrel made from glass which is lowered on chains from a boat. Inside his proto-submarine, Alexander takes lamps to light his way and two animal companions, a cockerel to tell the time and a cat whose breath purifies the air.

Alexander’s underwater journey shows that medieval people were thinking creatively about how a person could venture safely underwater. That’s not to say that the design would work: for one thing, the barrel would float without ballast; for another, a cat’s breath does not purify air so Alexander would have a very limited air supply.

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Alexander is lowered into the sea, Roman d'Alexandre, Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 20v

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Design for diving equipment, a mechanical sketchbook, Add MS 34113, f. 180v

Is not until the 15th-century that people began to design diving apparatus with a view to practical use. This sketchbook, compiled in the 15th-century by an unknown Italian engineer, contains designs for diving suits that might have inspired Leonardo's (you can also see this manuscript in the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, displaying a design for a water wheel).

The diving suits would allow a person freer movement than the barrel, so that the divers can carry out tasks underwater such as loading these baskets with rocks. With the figure on the left, the engineer has attempted to solve the problem of air supply by feeding air through a hose, connected at one end to a float on the surface and at the other to the diver’s mask. This is close to the design that was finally employed in the first successful diving suits, but with one major difference. The Renaissance engineer had not realised that the air supplied to the diver would have to be pressurised to account for the increased pressure underwater.

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Leonardo’s design for Diving Apparatus, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo’s diving apparatus from the early 16th century follows roughly the same design as the anonymous sketchbook, but adds some improved features. His diving mask is provided with two hoses, one to bring fresh air in and the other to take old air out. He has realised that the hoses will need to be reinforced with metal rings to stop the water pressure from closing them up. The float is also modified to prevent water accidentally spilling into the air supply. But crucially, Leonardo did not think to add an air compressor to the design so in practice the diver would not be able to breathe in deep water.

It was not until the 18th century that the first successful diving suits were made. But from Beowulf to Leonardo, people had long been coming up with creative ways to explore the world beneath the waves. To admire Leonardo’s design for diving apparatus in person, don’t miss the exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, at the British Library from 7 June–8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

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10 July 2019

Jerome and the lion

Everyone loves a picture of a medieval lion. The Twitter hashtag #notalion celebrates how amusingly unrealistic they often look, frequently resembling cuddly housecats more than the king of beasts. In medieval manuscripts, lions are found not only in bestiaries but also in illuminated bibles and other religious works, and sometimes in images of St Jerome who, believe it or not, once befriended a lion.

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Jerome and the lion, from his translation of Eusebius of Caesarea, Chronici canones: Rome, c. 1485–c. 1488: Royal MS 14 C III, f. 2r (detail)

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St Jerome with the lion holding up its paw, at the opening of the Psalter of St Jerome in a Book of Hours: Netherlands, S., 2nd quarter of the 15th century: Harley MS 2982, f. 97r

St Jerome (347–420), known in Latin as Hieronymous, was one of the Fathers of the early Christian Church, most famous for translating the entire Bible into Latin. The works of the Church Fathers were foundational texts for medieval religious life, used as teaching aids, authoritative reference works and moral guides, as you can discover in this article on the Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website. In the image below, the Church Fathers, Gregory, Augustine, Jerome (with a lion) and Ambrose are shown at the walls of the Fortress of Faith, with men and women representing vices.

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The Fortress of Faith, in Pierre Richard, La forteresse de la foy: Lille and Bruges, 4th quarter of the 15th century: Royal MS 17 F VI, f. 101r

Along with the other Church Fathers, Jerome is venerated as a saint. His feast day is 30 September and his life is recorded in the Golden Legend, the medieval collection of saints’ Lives compiled by Jacobus Voragine (c. 1230–1298), where the story of the lion is told.

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Jerome seated, being given a scroll by an angel, with a lion at his feet, from Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, translated by Jean de Vignay: Paris, 1382: Royal MS 19 B XVII, f. 2r (detail)

The Golden Legend often blends traditional stories about the saints with historical facts, and this blending can be seen in its account of St Jerome’s life. According to the Golden Legend, as a young man Jerome moved to Rome to study, where he soon established his reputation as a scholar of note, and was ordained a cardinal at the age of 39. However, he rejected papal intrigues and politics, choosing to become a desert hermit and endure hardship as the ‘companion of wild beasts and scorpions’ for four years. He then went to Bethlehem where he asked permission to live at the place of the Nativity, like a domestic animal beside the crib, to work on his translation of the Bible.

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St Jerome as a monk removing the thorn from the lion’s paw, from Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints: Paris, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 20 D VI, f. 159v

During this time, a lion came limping into the monastery where Jerome came to pray. The other monks fled in terror but he treated the lion kindly, removing a thorn from its paw and having it washed and bandaged. The lion was tamed and lived among the monks, looking after the donkey who carried their wood, and guarding it when it went out into the fields.

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St Jerome reading, with the donkey carrying wood guarded by the lion: The Hastings Hours, Ghent or Bruges, c. 1480: Add MS 54782, f. 278v

One day, while the lion was asleep, the donkey was stolen by a troop of passing camel merchants. Although he searched everywhere, the lion could not find his friend. The monks suspected the lion of having eaten the donkey and punished him, making him carry their wood. The lion bore this patiently, but kept looking for his friend, and one day when the camel traders were passing back that way he recognised the donkey in their caravan. He gave a terrifying roar, so that the merchants fled, and he brought the donkey and the camels back to the monastery. Jerome saw the lion’s joyful behaviour and realised what had happened. It was not long before the merchants appeared and begged forgiveness for their crime. Jerome forgave them graciously and they went on their way, leaving the monks with their lion and their donkey.  

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St Jerome writing with his hand on the lion’s head, at the beginning of his prologue to the Bible: Netherlands, 1492: Yates Thompson MS 16, f. 1r 

Having re-organised the Divine Office, putting all the Psalms and lessons of the Church year into the correct order, St Jerome died in Bethlehem at the age of 98. The underground chamber where he worked on his translation for 40 years can still be seen near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There are donkeys, but no lions, in the vicinity.

                                                                                                                                                                Chantry Westwell

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06 July 2019

Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo

Even after the Normans conquered England, Old English (the oldest form of the vernacular) continued to be spoken throughout the country. It continued to be used in books produced in  monasteries there for at least a century after William the Conqueror’s invasion.

One excellent example of this is found in the Old English Illustrated Herbal. Originally made in Canterbury in the early 11th century, this manuscript contains Old English translations of a collection of Latin remedies, illustrated with numerous paintings of plants and animals. You can read more about its history in Taylor McCall’s article on Medical knowledge in the early medieval period, as well as in this earlier blogpost.

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Illustrations of a lion, a bull, a monkey, a bear and a dog alongside Old English medical recipes, in the Old English Illustrated Herbal (Canterbury, 1st quarter of the 11th century): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 81v–82r

To judge by its additions and annotations, this manuscript continued to be read for many years after its production. During the 12th century, scribes at Canterbury were still adding new recipes to it, which were also written in the vernacular.

One added remedy is a cure for lung disease (Wið lungen adle), made from a mixture of herbs with warm ale. Another claims to be seo seleste eahsalf wið ehpærce (the best eye salve for eye pain). There is even a medical treatment for gout, entitled Wið fot adle (Against foot disease).

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A page of Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, including a treatment for gout (column 2, lines 1–15): Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 83r

This remedy describes a recipe for a drink — a mixture of wine, leeks, cumin and laurel berries — that a patient should take every day until the disease is cured:

Wið fot adle 7 wið þone dropan nim datulus þa wyrt oðer nama titulosa þæt is on ure geþeoda þæt greata crauleac nim þes leaces heafda 7 dryg swiðe 7 nim ðer of þriddan healves penincges gewihte 7 peretreo 7 romanisce rinda  7 cymen 7 feorðan del lauwerberian 7 þera oðera wyrta ælces healves penincges gewihta 7 vi piper corn unwegen 7 grind ealle to duste 7 do win tra aeg faille fulle þis is foð læcæcræft fyle þan men drincan oþ ðæt he hal fy.

('Against foot rot (gout) and against wrist-drop: take the wort hermodactylus, known by another name titulosa that in our own language is called the ‘great crow leek’. Take the heads of this leek and dry them thoroughly, and take a weight amounting to two and a half pennies, and pyrethrum and Roman rinds and cumin and one fourth as much laurel berries, and of the other worts, each by weight of a half penny and six pepper corns, unweighed, and grind them all to dust. And add two egg shells full of wine: this is a true leechcraft. Give it to the man to drink till he is whole again.')

These 12th-century additions occur throughout the herbal. On one occasion, two medical recipes were added to a previously blank page, opposite a large illustration of a man and a centaur presenting a book in a landscape surrounded by animals. The image is captioned Escolapius Plato Centaurus.

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Old English medical recipes added in the 12th century, facing a representation of a man and a centaur presenting a book: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, ff. 18v–19r

One of these added recipes purports to be a remedy for vertigo or giddiness. It instructs the reader to:

Nim betonica 7 wæll swyðe on win oþþa on ald ealað 7 wæse þæt heafod mid þam wose 7 leg fiððen þæt wyrt swa wærm abutan þæt heafod 7 wrið mid claðe 7 læt swab eon ealla niht.

('Take betony and boil it thoroughly in wine or in old ale, and wash the head with the infusion, and then lay the wort, so warm, about the head, and wreathe with it a cloth, and leave it there all night.')

While it is hard to determine the effectiveness of such cures, this addition to an older Anglo-Saxon book does reveal the continued use of English a century after William's victory at the Battle of Hastings. If you'd like to know more about writing in the vernacular in the 12th century, why not take a look at this article featured on our website.

 

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