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 December 2019

Troy story

For over 3000 years, people have told legends of a long and bloody war between the Greeks and the Trojans, sparked by the abduction of the beautiful Queen Helen of Sparta by Paris, the Trojan prince. In response, a mighty force of Greek heroes laid siege to the city of Troy for ten years. The siege only ended when the Greeks built a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city gates as an offering. The Trojans, not realising that it was a trick, brought the horse into the city. A band of Greek soldiers were hiding inside the horse, and when night fell they crept out. They opened the gates to the rest of the Greek army, who massacred the population and destroyed the city.

The British Library has loaned seven ancient and medieval manuscripts to the British Museum’s current exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎). We’re going to be exploring how these manuscripts reveal the evolution of the tale of Troy over the centuries, starting with the Greek tradition today and following with a second blog post about the Latin tradition.

Men drag a giant horse statue into a walled city
The Trojan Horse: Italy, 1480s, Kings MS 24, f. 73v

However cruel and bloody it may sound today, the siege of Troy was only a rather average-sized case amongst the many brutal battles of classical antiquity. There were several more devastating carnages recorded, for example during the long wars between Rome and the North African Carthage, or between Rome and King Pyrrhus’ forces from the Greek city of Epirus.

What then distinguishes Troy and the Trojan war from other even more horrific and disastrous wars of antiquity? The question was answered by none other than Alexander the Great, another conqueror of the 4th century BC. Upon reaching the tomb of Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of the Trojan War, Alexander cried out how lucky Achilles was to have his deeds and memory preserved by the great poet Homer.

A print of a stone sculpture of the head and shoulders of an elderly man with a thick, curly beard and hair
Engraving of a bust of Homer found at Baiae in 1780: Burney MS 86, f. v verso

The key to the long-standing fame of siege of Troy is the fact that it became the subject of two of the most important and masterful Greek epic poems of Classical Antiquity: the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two poems, presumably pieced together from earlier oral traditions in the 8th century BC and attributed to the blind, prophet-like poet Homer, are iconic pieces of ancient Greek literature.

Read and admired by generations of scholars, poets and artists, the two epic poems were part of the Greek school curriculum all over the Mediterranean. Children and young adults, together with their teachers and instructors, spent hours reading, understanding and memorising Homer’s verses. No wonder that the poems come down to us in hundreds of various formats – from cheap copies for schools to deluxe papyri designed for scholarly use or showing off.

A wooden board inscribed with Greek writing
Eight lines from Homer’s Iliad written on a wooden tablet by a teacher: Egypt, 3rd century AD, Add MS 33293

A splendid example of the showy format of deluxe papyri is Papyrus 732. This 1st-century AD copy from Book 13 of the Iliad is written with elegant Greek uncials for wealthy patron, probably a scholar who had even put one annotation to the column on the left.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 13 of the Iliad: 1st century AD, Papyrus 732 (3)

Papyrus 271 is even more lavishly written, containing portions of the Odyssey from the 1st century AD. It shows the end of Book 3 of the poem with a nice endpiece (colophon) on the right. The annotations in the margins are even more interesting. These little notes explaining the grammar or the content of the ancient text are extracts from ancient commentators of the Homeric epics. They preserve fragments from scholarly works that do not survive anymore and represent centuries of scholarship on Homer.

A fragmentary piece of parchment with columns of Greek writing in a frame
Book 3 of the Odyssey: 1st century AD, Papyrus 271 (2)

These scattered notes were later assembled into one almost continuous commentary on Homer’s texts that often accompanied both the Iliad and the Odyssey in later manuscripts. An excellent example of this textual tradition, usually called the school-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, is the Townley Homer.

This manuscript, known after its previous owner, Charles Townley (1737-1805), was probably written in 1059 and contains the text of the Iliad with an extensive array of marginal scholia. An elaborate system of red signs connect the main text of the poem to the lengthier notes on the margins. Between the widely spaced lines of Homer’s text there are several interlinear notes (glosses) explaining difficult words or archaic grammatical features of the text for the reader. All this was designed for a fuller and deeper understanding of the poems. This remarkable manuscript preserves centuries of Homeric scholarship in the form of a handy manual that ensured the transmission of not only Homer and the memory of Troy but also a whole range of other texts, grammars, scientific works, fables, literary and metrical works for the following centuries.

Manuscript page in Greek, with lots of notes in the margins and between the lines of text
School-commentaries (scholia) on Homer, the 'Townley Homer': Eastern Mediterranean, probably 1059, Burney Ms 86, f. 240v

Homer’s Greek epics also inspired Latin writers who reimagined the story of Troy for new audiences and new purposes. Watch out for part two of this blogpost to learn how the Trojans founded Europe, and check out the British Museum’s exhibition, Troy: myth and reality (21 November – 8 March 2020‎) where you can see most of these manuscripts on display.

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

04 December 2019

Medieval bookbindings: from precious gems to sealskin

This blog tends to focus on the inside of the Library’s collection items, on their varied texts and remarkable illustrations. But the physical outside of a manuscript can be just as intriguing.

Most medieval and early modern manuscripts no longer have their original bindings. The earlier the manuscript, the rarer it is that the binding survives. The binding is a book’s first defence against wear and tear, dirt and water damage. Even if it is kept clean and safe, the frequent opening of a book puts pressure on, and eventually wears out, the binding supports. Additionally, many manuscripts have been rebound in modern times by their later owners, who often wanted their entire collection to have the same bindings. As a result, original or near-contemporary medieval bindings that still survive are rare.

The type of high status binding that would have been the very rarest at the time of production sometimes survives from the early medieval period. These deluxe bindings are known as treasure bindings, because of their lavish and high-quality materials and craftsmanship. Excitingly, several early medieval treasure bindings are among the manuscripts digitised as part of the Polonsky Project. Read all about their decorations of carved ivory, precious metals and gems, in the article about medieval bindings on the Polonsky Project website.

Lower board of a binding made of dark brown wood and with clearly visible cord of lacing in a zig-zag pattern along the right-hand edge.
Lower cover with exposed wooden board: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

However, the humbler medieval bindings that still survive can be just as exciting. For example, we have an early binding of a copy from the early 9th century of the so-called Commentarii notarum tironianarum (read more about this manusctipt in a previous blogpost on antique shorthand in Carolingian books). It might not be the original binding, but it was probably made no more than two centuries after the manuscript that it protects.

Spine of a book seen straight-on, with visible endband at the top and three lines of sewing supports, evenly spaced and horizontal across the spine, connecting the gatherings of the text block to the boards also visible.
Exposed spine showing the sewing supports: binding of Add MS 37518, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

The date can be determined because the process of attaching the boards is typical of the Carolingian method, which was popular during the 8th to 12th centuries. For this manuscript, the method of board attachment is visible because the whitish leather that once covered both wooden boards and the spine is partially lost. The exposed lower board and spine makes it easy to study the pattern of the lacing (the cords that are threaded through the inner edges of the wooden boards) and the sewing supports (the way that those cords were attached to the gatherings of parchment that make up the text block). As a result, it provides a good opportunity for studying the otherwise covered parts of an early binding.

Egerton_ms_2951!1_fblefr
Upper part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

 

Inner cover of parchment binding made from a manuscript leaf, light beige in colour, with the text running perpendicular to the binding, and the now detached leather lacing strips visible in the inner edge and sticking up slightly from the surface of the parchment.
Inside of the lower part of the former cover for Egerton MS 2951, 4th quarter of the 12th century; now kept separately as Egerton MS 2951/1, 2nd half of the 14th century.

Another relatively common – and relatively low-cost – medieval way to cover manuscripts was to reuse leaves from another manuscript no longer considered useful. This is the kind of binding that was used to cover the collection of poems written in late 12th century, now Egerton MS 2951. At some point after the mid-14th century, the collection was given a ‘limp’ parchment binding made from a bifolium of a manuscript of the Gospel of St John written during the latter half of the 14th century. The binding is now removed and kept separately, but the old strips of alum-tawed leather that were used for the lacing are still visible on the insides of the covers.

Upper cover of a binding in dark brown leather with a patch of darker brown fur still visible in the upper third, and with three small metal bosses in the two upper and the lower right corner.
Upper cover with metal bosses: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century.

 

Lower cover of binding in dark brown leather with some patches of darker fur visible at the top and in the middle of the bottom half, with two metal bosses in the upper and lower right corners, as well as a copper roundel inscribed with the title of the text in the middle.
Lower cover with metal bosses and a copper roundel inscribed ‘GENESIS GLO[SATUS]’: binding for Add MS 63077, 2nd half of the 12th century. 

Sometimes surviving medieval bindings were made with more unusual materials. For instance, the binding of a 12th-century glossed book of Genesis (Add MS 63077), which is later than the manuscript it protects.  The metal furnishings – the metal bosses still surviving on both covers, and the inscribed copper so-called ‘title window’ of the lower cover – are characteristic of Gothic bindings. Fixtures like these started becoming common by the early 14th century. What is uncommon about this Gothic binding, however, is that the still furry leather used to cover it might be made from sealskin!

Next time you check out a digitised manuscript, don’t forget to scroll to the images of the binding – it might be a rare medieval one.  

Emilia Henderson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project

In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo

More information about medieval bookbinding:

‘Medieval Manuscripts: Bookbinding terms, materials, methods, and models’, Special Collections Conservation Unit of the Preservation Department of Yale University Library (2013), see Traveling Scriptorium blog by the Yale University Library: <https://travelingscriptorium.library.yale.edu/2013/07/17/bookbinding-terms-materials-methods-and-models/>

‘Bookbinding – Parts’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOBTrua1eH0, (2016), by Prof. Ana B. Sánchez-Prieto, part of the course ‘Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe’, by the universities of Colorado (USA) and Complutense of Madrid (Spain), see platform on www.coursera.org

 

23 November 2019

Happy anniversary to the Polonsky Project

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Today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of our collaborative interpretative and digitisation project with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.  A year ago we met in Paris as part of a three-day international conference to celebrate two new bilingual websites that provide unprecedented access to some of the riches of our two national collections.  Thanks to generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation, each Library digitised 400 manuscripts made in either England or France before the year 1200.  You can view all 800 of them on a website hosted by the BnF, and if you wish, select two or more to examine side by side (view the digitised manuscripts on the BnF website).  

An image from a medieval manuscript, which depicts a robed man sitting at a desk, writing with a quill pen and a knife
A portrait of St Dunstan: Canterbury, 4th quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 10 A XIII/1, f. 2v

A second website, also fully bilingual, is hosted by the British Library (view the BL's interpretative website).  Here you can read 30 articles on various topics, such as English manuscript illumination, French manuscript illuminationmedicine, or history. Or, watch videos of Professor Nick Vincent discussing law-making in early medieval England or Professor Julia Crick discussing manuscript production after the Norman Conquest. We also commissioned two animated films based on the story of the crane and the story of the whale from a medieval bestiary manuscript.  Some of the most popular films have been those on how to make a manuscript, commissioned from artist and calligrapher Patricia Lovett, with viewers spending an average of nearly 10 minutes on this topic. There’s also a film produced by the BnF, which explains the background to the project.

Taken together, over half a million individual pages have been viewed by people all over the world.  Early English manuscripts have been particularly popular.  We know that you are loyal viewers, too, with over 30% returning for another visit to the interpretative website, and with many of you reporting how you are using the resources in your teaching, or for your own research. We love to hear how you’ve been using the website and which features you’ve particularly enjoyed, so please let us know in the comments field below.  

We’ve received some great press coverage, including this BBC History podcast on the wonders of the Middle Ages, and a review in Hyperallergic. We have also been featured in La Revue Française de généalogie (April 2019), Les Veillées des Chaumières (May 2019), and Femme Actuelle Jeux (May 2019).

A detail from a medieval Bible manuscript, with an image of Christ and the Virgin Mary inside a decorated letter O
Christ in dialogue with the Virgin Mary, from the Chartres Bible: Chartres, 1146-1155, BnF Latin 116, f. 12r

The first printing of our project book by curators Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël, Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200, has sold out, and has just been reprinted.  It is also available as Enluminures médiévales: Chefs-d’oeuvre de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library, 700-1200.  Charlotte Denoël and Francesco Siri are currently editing the Paris conference proceedings, and Charlotte Denoël has recently published an article 'Le programme Polonsky France-Angleterre, 700-1200: manuscrits médiévaux de la Bibliothèque nationale de France et de la British Library: bilan et perspectives', in Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1 (2019), 3-10. 

Cette collaboration entre la BnF et la British Library a permis d’importantes avancées technologiques: désormais, la BnF est en mesure de proposer dans Gallica marque blanche, l’infrastructure numérique utilisée pour le site web du projet, ainsi que pour les nombreux autres sites créés par la BnF pour ses partenaires souhaitant disposer d’une bibliothèque numérique sur le modèle de Gallica, de nouvelles fonctionnalités, comme le visualiseur IIIF et le multilinguisme.

Nous espérons à présent que de nouvelles collaborations et les retours des utilisateurs sur les deux sites permettront d’actualiser et d’enrichir le corpus initial du projet. 

Thanks to all of you who have enjoyed and helped publicise the websites, and happy anniversary!


Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project


In partnership with

BnF logo

Supported by

The Polonsky Foundation logo