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

25 May 2019

How to name a mummy

The British Library’s landmark exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, opened recently. Many unique objects are on display, revealing the uses and ways of writing from the ancient to the modern world. Among them is one small piece encapsulating the story of an entire life.

The item in question is one of the numerous mummy labels housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London, who have kindly loaned it to our exhibition.

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The mummy label on loan to our Writing exhibition: UC 28078 © Petrie Museum

The tag, written in Ancient Greek between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the current era, reads ‘Bobastous to the gate of Thermouthiakes of the metropolis of the Arsinoite (district)’. It is the name of a person (Bobastous) and an address in Arsinoe, the capital of a district in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which corresponds to the modern Medinet el-Fayum, in Middle Egypt, on the western side of the Nile. This little wooden label was attached to the mummified corpse of Bobastous, in order to identify the body and to ensure that, after mummification, it was delivered to the right address for burial.

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‘View of Medinet El-Fayoum’ (1868-1870) by Jean-Léon Gérôme: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Mummy labels are well known from Roman Egypt. They were usually made out of various types of wood, but other materials like faience and stone were also used. The tags could have different shapes, ranging from a tiny stela to a little tablet with one or two ‘ears’ (‘tabula ansata’). Standard forms such as the rectangle are also attested, such as the tag from the Petrie Museum in our exhibition.

The labels usually had one or more holes, through which a string was passed to append the tag to the mummy's neck or feet: the label on display in Writing: Making Your Mark even preserves the original cord.

The tag could bear writing on one or both sides, and two languages — usually Greek and Egyptian (Demotic) — were often employed on the same object. The text was normally drawn in black ink, but it could also be carved. In some cases, red ink was used.

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This tag from the Petrie Museum (UC 45635), a tabula ansata with one ansa, belonged to a certain Didyme: the text is carved and also drawn with ink © Petrie Museum

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A tag on limestone from the Petrie Museum (UC 34473) in Demotic script, written in red ink © Petrie Museum

Each label recorded details of the deceased for the purpose of identification. Alongside the personal name, additional information such as the names of the father and mother, the deceased's place of origin, their profession, and sometimes the age at the time of the death, could also be recorded. In rare occurrences, even the cause of death is stated. For example, one tag now held in Berlin (SB I 1209) reads: ‘Apollonius, son of Eusebes and Tamis, died because of a scorpion’s bite’.

Mummy labels served an important function. It was essential to be able to identify the embalmed corpse, because the body had to be transported to the cemetery or returned to the home village of the deceased (if they had passed away elsewhere). Papyri sometimes shed further light on how mummies were transported. For example, in the British Library's collection is a letter from a man complaining that the recipients had failed to collect the body of the deceased (possibly their brother), and that they did not pay for the funeral expenses (520 drachmas) (Papyrus 717). However, they did take his belongings …

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A papyrus describing funeral expenses: Papyrus 717 (P.Nekr. 18)

Besides providing identification and instructions as to the transport and shipping of the body, mummy labels sometimes bear drawings such as the dog Anubis (guardian dog of the cemeteries) and symbols like the ankh (life) or, in a Christian environment, the cross. In other cases, wishes for prosperity, phrases of encouragement and condolence, and maxims (such as ‘nobody is immortal’) were added as a means of commemoration and farewell.

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Anubis holding the key (kleidouchos) to the Underworld and a burning torch in a mummy tag from the Liverpool Museum

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A Petrie Museum label (UC 45656) for Socrate, daughter of Cyrillus, featuring the ankh, the symbol of life © Petrie Museum

The majority of mummy labels published to the present day are collected in a database with the wonderful name Death on the Nile. If you want to see one of them in person, we'd love you to visit our exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which is open at the British Library until 27 August.

 

Federica Micucci

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22 May 2019

Book of Beasts at the Getty

Bestiaries are one of the most popular medieval texts, describing the characteristics and habits of beasts real and imagined. We are delighted to say that the British Library has loaned six manuscripts to an exciting new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Book of Beasts, curated by Elizabeth Morrison and Larisa Grollemond, explores the wonders of the medieval bestiary tradition, drawing together manuscripts, tapestries and paintings, as well as a variety of other objects.

Two of these British Library loans are magnificent 13th-century English bestiaries. The first (Royal MS 12 C XIX) contains over 80 illustrations of beasts, birds and fish, painted in gold and bright colours. This bestiary is accompanied by several theological works, including extracts from the Book of Genesis and the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636), as well as a number of medical recipes. In the page illustrated here, it tells us that the camel can endure thirst for three days, and that it prefers to drink muddy water.

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A bestiary made in England (c. 1200–c. 1210): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 33r (detail)

The second manuscript (Royal MS 12 F XIII) is now known as the Rochester Bestiary, because it belonged to the cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester. This manuscript includes 55 finished illustrations, although there were spaces left for 126 in total, some with added instructions in Frecnch to an illuminator. The bestiary is followed by a lapidary (an account of the properties of precious stones), written in Anglo-Norman French.

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The lion (the king of the beasts) is usually the first animal to be described in a bestiary, as found in the Rochester Bestiary (c. 1230): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 4r

Medieval bestiaries were produced in many different forms. Another of the manuscripts on loan to the Getty contains an illustrated aviary (or text about birds) by Hugh of Fouilloy (Sloane MS 278). It is combined with the Dicta Chrysostomi, which survives in very few manuscripts from this period and contains only a small number of accounts of animals, discussed across 27 chapters. Although the title of this text — The Words of John Chrysostom on the Nature of Beasts — suggests that its author was St John Chrysostom, who lived during the 4th century, it was actually written in France around the year 1000.

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A watchful crane raises its foot, in a bestiary with Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (northern France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 278, f. 27r (detail)

Another bestiary is featured in the theological miscellany pictured below (Harley MS 3244). Made in the middle of the 13th century, the volume is a compilation of texts intended for a Dominican friar, who is depicted kneeling before Christ on f. 27r. Many of its 133 illustrations have unique designs; it includes more images of fish and insects than most other bestiaries that survive from this period, as well as a number of additions to the text itself.  

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An elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back (England, c. 1236–c. 1250): Harley MS 3244, f. 39r (detail)  

The Getty Museum's exhibition examines how artists adapted the stories and images of the bestiary for use in other medieval manuscripts and artworks. For example, we have also loaned an illustrated collection of treatises on heraldry, compiled around 1494 by a certain Adam Loutfut, a Scottish scribe in the service of Sir William Cummyn of Inverellochy (Harley MS 6149). One of its treatises describes the animals that most commonly appear on medieval coats of arms, many of which derive from the bestiary tradition.

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A page from a heraldic treatise by Adam Loutfut, including images of a modewarp (mole), tiger, horse and a bear (Scotland, c. 1494): Harley MS 6149, f. 17r

The final volume in this selection is known as ‘The Northern French Miscellany’ (Add MS 11639), a lavishly illustrated manuscript containing a variety of biblical and theological texts in Hebrew. Numerous inhabited initial-word panels appear throughout the book, some featuring vibrant images of birds and beasts, whose designs are stylistically very similar to the illustrations of bestiary manuscripts.

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An eagle lands upon an unsuspecting duck in this inhabited initial-word panel, from the Northern French Miscellany (southern Germany or France, 1277–1324): Add MS 11639, f. 107r

To explore more of the stories from the medieval ‘book of beasts’, check out our animations about the lives of the Crane and the Whale, both based on accounts and illustrations from another early illustrated bestiary (Harley MS 4751). Our own website also features an article written by Beth Morrison, Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum, 'Beastly tales from the medieval bestiary'.

Book of Beasts is on at the Getty Center until 18 August. We'd love you to catch it if you're in California this summer.

 

Calum Cockburn

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20 May 2019

Mehmed the Conqueror, scourge of the world

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 brought Turkish politics closer to western Europe. The Italian merchant cities already had commercial ties with the Ottomans across the Mediterranean, but after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, western Europeans became increasingly more interested in — and often worried by — their new eastern neighbours.

It was not only scholars, manuscripts and ideas that flowed from East to West. In the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, the reputation of Mehmed II (1432–1481), commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, spread throughout Western Europe. Reports travelled of his military genius, political astuteness and cultural refinement.

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A portrait of Mehmed II in Kiyafet ül-insaniye, a description of the first twelve Ottoman sultans: Add MS 7880, f. 45v

A celebrity of the 15th century, Mehmed mesmerised his contemporaries, particularly Italian humanists and artists. Gentile Bellini was even invited to paint Mehmed’s portrait. The humanists’ fascination with the Ottoman sultan may be gauged through an epitaph for Mehmed, which started circulating soon after the sultan’s death in 1481. Previously attributed to Leonardo Griffi (1437–1485), friend of the renowned Italian humanist Francesco Filelfo (1398–1481), but now considered to have been composed anonymously, the epitaph extols Mehmed’s virtues and conquests.

An early copy of the epitaph known as ‘the epigram of the great Turk’ (epigrama magni teurci [sic]) survives in Harley MS 2455, a late-15th century manuscript written probably in Milan. The volume also contains works by Terence and Ovid and a copy of the 14th-century epitaph for Giovanni Visconti, archbishop of Milan (d. 1354), composed by Gabrio Zamorei. As Zamorei’s epitaph occurs in many other manuscripts produced in Milan, it is likely Harley 2455 may have also been written there.

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This copy of the epitaph for Mehmed II is written in a clear humanistic script: Harley MS 2455, f. 90r

The epitaph for Mehmed brings together the humanists’ fascination for the Ottoman sultan and their enthusiasm for classical antiquity. In flowing elegiac couplets, the sultan is described as the ‘dread of the world’ (timor orbis), having conquered countless peoples, kingdoms and cities. Mehmed’s conquest of Constantinople was followed by that of other major Greek cities as well as that of the Genovese colony in Crimea. He is not an equal to Alexander the Great or Hannibal, the text explains, but stands well above them.

In good humanistic tradition, the poet censures ‘proud Italy’ (superba Italia), whom the sultan would have conquered had the fates not conspired against him. Mehmed may have the whole world, but in the face of death, the poet concludes, human pride, magnificence, empires and gold perish without a trace.

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Portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile Bellini, in the collections of the National Gallery, London

The British Library has recently started to upgrade the catalogue records of the Harley manuscripts, including Harley MS 2455. You can read an introduction to this project here.

 

Cristian Ispir

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