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

24 August 2019

What's happening here?

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Many of you may be aware, especially if you follow us on Twitter, that we have a penchant for a little manuscript known as Le Petit Livre d'Amour (Stowe MS 955). Written by Pierre Sala early in the 16th century, it was presented as a love-gift to his mistress (and future wife), Marguerite Builloud. On the reverse of a portrait of the lover (f. 17v) is written, 'Set de vray le portret de Pierre Sala mestre dotel de ches le roy avec des enimes quil avoit fet a sa mestresse qui estoit grand honcle a madame de Ressis laquelle est sortie de la mayson de Guillien en Quercy.' Alongside the portrait of Sala (attributed to Jean Perréal) and the series of enigmatic miniatures (attributed to the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse), one of the manuscript's most distinctive features is its original wooden carrying case, designed to be suspended from a girdle. The leather covering is carved with devices which include the letters P (for Pierre) and M (for Marguerite), formed out of crossed compasses or staves. We suggest that you read more about the 'Little Book of Love' in this blogpost, and that you view it in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Miniature of a man and a woman playing the bagpipes

This is a prelude to this weekend's caption competition. As ever, there are no prizes, but we'd love to have your responses to the question, 'What is happening here?' Answers please via the comments box below or on Twitter to @BLMedieval

23 August 2019

Ancient recyling: writing on potsherds

There are only a few days left to visit the British Library's major exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Recently, we dedicated a blogpost to one of the exhibits that has undoubtedly captured our visitors’ attention for its length, beauty and interest: the so-called Ravenna papyrus.

Another object on display, quite different from the Latin papyrus in terms of its size, nature and content, has also raised considerable public interest. It is a small potsherd, measuring 6.7 x 10 x 0.7 cm, whose outside (convex) side was used to host writing (Ostracon 13993). It is just one of the almost 4,200 potsherds, written in Ancient Greek, which form part of the British Library collections. They are known as ostraca (singular ostracon). You may not be immediately familiar with this term, but a modern English verb is derived from it. In Athens, in the 5th century BC, names of political figures who were believed to represent a threat to democracy were scratched onto the surface of potsherds, which were then deposited in urns. If a certain number of votes was reached, the person was expelled, that is, ostracised, for a period of ten years.

An ostracon issued for a sex-worker in ancient Egypt
The ostracon on display in Writing: Making Your Mark, dated 7 October 110 (Ostracon 13993)

Writing on pottery was common in the ancient world, and served different purposes. Containers of various types and shapes could be inscribed with information as to their contents, origi, or destination, especially for trade. Such labels, called ‘tituli picti’ or ‘dipinti’, were generally executed on the neck or shoulders of the amphora in red or black ink. However, these painted inscriptions are not considered to be ‘ostraca’, even when they are preserved in fragmentary form.

In contrast, shards of broken pots were commonly recycled and used as a writing material. For example, in Graeco-Roman Egypt ostraca were widely employed for writing many kinds of text, despite their disadvantages. Their smaller surface could only host short texts; they were heavier than a sheet of papyrus; and they could not be sealed. On the other hand, such shards were not only easy to source, such as in households and rubbish heaps, but they were also free of charge. Writing was usually traced on them in ink using the calamus, a reed pen employed for writing Greek and Latin texts on papyrus, or the reed brush for Egyptian writing. In Writing: Making Your Mark, our visitors have the opportunity to view an example of a reed pen in Arabic style, with the nib cut left oblique in order to favour writing from right to left.

As a result of their widespread use, ostraca from Egypt bear a wide variety of Greek texts. These include everyday documents such as tax receipts, lists, accounts and letters, as well as writing exercises and literary texts. At times, it can be difficult to tell whether these literary works were themselves being copied as writing exercises. One of the most famous examples of ostraca preserving a literary text is a Ptolemaic ostracon now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence (PSI XIII 1300). This contains an ode by Sappho, of which only a few words are quoted by other ancient authors.

The island of Elephantine
Elephantine Island (source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantine)

The ostracon on display in our exhibition dates from over 1,900 years ago, and it contains a type of permit which is only rarely attested in our sources. In it, two tax collectors authorised a woman named Thinabdella to perform her activity as a sex-worker on a specific day. The ostracon is one of a handful of such permits to survive from Elephantine, an island off Aswan in Upper Egypt. The text on our ostracon reads:

Pelaias and Sokraton, tax farmers, to the ‘hetaira’ Thinabdella, greetings. We grant you permission to have intercourse with whomever you wish in this place on the day written below.

The date then follows, corresponding to 7 October 110, alongside the subscription of Sokraton, penned in a different hand. Why the permit was granted for a single day has been a matter of debate. Did Thinabdella come to the town for a short stay, or on a specific occasion, such as a festival?

There are just a few days left to see the ostracon in person at Writing: Making Your Mark: the exhibition closes on 27 August. If you would like to see more ostraca, you can check them out on Digitised Manuscripts, where you will currently find over 145 ostraca originating from Elephantine, with more yet to come!

The exhibition catalogue, in both paperback and hardback, is available from the British Library Shop.

9780712352536 Writing Making Your Mark

 

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21 August 2019

Win tickets to see Dan Jones: Crusaders

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On 9 September, the author and broadcaster Dan Jones is speaking at the British Library about the Crusades. We're delighted to have a pair of tickets for one of our lovely readers. To have a chance of winning, simply answer the question at the end of this blogpost.

Drawing on his new book Crusaders, Dan Jones will tell a tale soaked in Islamic, Christian and Jewish blood, peopled by extraordinary characters, and characterised by low ambition and high principle. These are events that have left an enduring imprint on relations between the Muslim world and the West.

Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a broadcaster, award-winning journalist and pioneer of the resurgence of interest in medieval history. He is the bestselling author of Summer of BloodThe PlantagenetsMagna Carta, Realm Divided and The Templars.

To have a chance of winning 2 tickets to see this event, answer the following question by using the comments box at the end of this blogpost. One pair of tickets is available. The winner will be drawn at random on 4 September from all the entries, and will be notified the same day. You must be able to make your own way to the event and there is no cash alternative.

 

Question: Which Pope was responsible for preaching the First Crusade?

Closing date for entries: 3 September, midnight (GMT).

 

Dan Jones: Crusaders is at the British Library Knowledge Centre, St Pancras (London), on 9 September (19:00–20:30). Tickets cost £15 (concessions are available).