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

16 June 2019

Explore Leonardo's notebooks

Our major new exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion, is open now at the British Library. It features highlights from three of the Reniassance thinker's extraordinary notebooks: the Codex Forster II, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum; the Codex Leicester, owned by Bill Gates; and the Library's Codex Arundel. The exhibition is on until 8 September, and tickets for adults cost £7 (members and children under 11 enter for free and other concessions are available).

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Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion marks the 500th anniversary of his death

Our exhibition takes the opportunity to to explore the inner workings of Leonardo's complex mind and his fascination with motion — which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. Visitors will be able to marvel at his detailed studies of natural phenomena, and to see studies for his painting The Virgin of the Rocks.

You can explore Leonardo's Codex Arundel for yourself on the Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Leonardo described this notebook on the opening page as a 'a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place according to the subjects of which they treat'. It contains pages datable between 1478 and 1518 (though mostly to 1508), and written variously at Florence, Milan, Rome and Amboise in France. Tthis notebook is named after an early owner, Thomas Howard (1585–1646), 2nd earl of Arundel, 4th earl of Surrey, and 1st earl of Norfolk. It was presented by Henry Howard (d. 1684), 6th duke of Norfolk, to the Royal Society in 1667, from whom it was purchased by the British Museum in 1831.

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This image from Codex Arundel, taken using UV light, shows Leonardo da Vinci's studies of limbs from different viewpoints

Our Events programme contains a number of talks connected to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, including Waterways (17 June), Leonardo da Vinci’s Scientific Impact with Domenico Laurenza (2 July), and a curator talk by Juliana Barone (15 July). You can book tickets for all these on our Events pages, and for the exhibition here.

 

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11 June 2019

The Ruin of Britain

Very few texts survive that were written in Britain between the 5th and 7th centuries. We have works by just two named authors from that period. One was a shepherd, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and became the patron saint of Ireland, none other than St Patrick. The other wrote one of the most influential rants in British history.

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A page from the earliest substantial copy of Gildas's The Ruin of Britain, made possibly in Canterbury in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 14v

The ranter in question was Gildas, a Romano-British deacon and monk. Sometime between the late 5th century and the 6th century, he wrote The Ruin of Britain, which describes a time of dramatic change, when the Roman legions had left Britain and the Romano-British population was under attack from invaders:

‘I shall try, God willing, to say a little about the situation of Britain; about her obstinacy, subjection, and rebellion ... the destruction of cities; about those who survived’: Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and other works, ed. and trans. by Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore, 1978), p. 16.

As this quotation suggests, The Ruin of Britain is a moralising polemic that condemned the British lay and ecclesiastical leaders. The text is full of examples and quotations from the Bible. Although Gildas's account is vivid, he was not an eyewitness: most of the events he described occurred before he was born.

A fragment of The Ruin of Britain survives in a late 9th- or early 10th-century continental copy (now in Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 414). The oldest substantial copy was made in southern England in the mid-10th century (British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A VI). Sadly, this manuscript was significantly damaged by fire in 1731.

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The pages of this manuscript of The Ruin of Britain were damaged by fire in 1731, before being placed in paper mounts in the 19th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 7v

In The Ruin of Britain, Gildas depicted the defeats and natural disasters suffered by the Britons as divine punishment for their sins. He claimed that Romano-British leaders had invited three ship-loads of Saxons to protect them from Pictish invaders, but these Saxons had turned on their hosts and become an even worse enemy. Gildas described vividly how whole settlements were put to the sword, ‘fragments of bodies covered with coagulated clots of red blood, in confusion as if in some kind of horrible wine press’ (translated by Hugh Williams, Gildas (London, 1899)). Some Britons surrendered to the invaders, others fled into the mountains or deep into forests, others still migrated to the continent. Some resisted, such as Ambrosius Aurelianus, who reputedly defeated the invaders at Mons Badonicus in the year that Gildas was born.

While Gildas praised leaders like Ambrosius, he did not mince his words about the Romano-British kings and churchmen of his own day: ‘Britain has kings, but they are tyrants: she has judges, but they are unrighteous men’. Gildas singled out five kings in particular for condemnation: Constantine, king of Dumnonia (the area around modern Cornwall and Devon); Aurelius Caninus; grey-haired Vortipor of the Demetae (in what is now Pembrokeshire); Cuneglas, who probably ruled the area around the Dinarth Rhos peninsula; and Maelgwn of Gwynedd. Gildas accused all these men of murder and adultery. He saved his fiercest criticism for the most powerful British king, Maelgwn:

‘And you, island dragon … greater than almost all the kings of Britain, but worse in morality ... You are certainly not lacking in warnings, since you were taught by the finest teacher in almost all of Britain.’

It is unclear what happened to Gildas after he wrote The Ruin of Britain. Some have suggested that he migrated to Brittany, like many other Britons, since there was a Breton monastery dedicated to St Gildas. But there is no firm evidence for this. Gildas was remembered as a saint by the Anglo-Saxons, and his name is found in eight pre-Conquest calendars of saints' days.

Ironically, Gildas’s writings survive to this day in part because the Anglo-Saxons that he so despised continued to quote him. For example, Bede (d. 735) used The Ruin of Britain as one of his sources for the history of post-Roman Britain.

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The most substantial surviving manuscript of The Ruin of Britain was copied in England in the 10th century: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

Three centuries years later, Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) used Gildas as cautionary tale, to try to galvanise English resistance to the Scandinavian invasions:

‘There was a historian in the time of the Britons, Gildas, who wrote about their misdeeds, how they exasperated God with their sins so much that He finally allowed the English army to conquer their land … Let us take warning from this: it is true what I say, we know of worse deeds among the English than we have heard of among the Britons.’

The Ruin of Britain had long-lasting effects, even they were not what Gildas intended. He may not have swayed the leaders of his own day, and it is clear that the Germanic invaders became dominant in southern Britannia. The Ruin of Britain nonetheless had a major impact on some later writers. It remains the principal (near) contemporary narrative account of the momentous events of the 5th and 6th centuries.

 

Alison Hudson

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07 June 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion

On 7 June an exciting new exhibition opens at the British Library. Marking 500 years since his death, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion showcases Leonardo’s manuscript legacy by displaying together — for the first time in the UK — highlights from one of the British Library’s finest treasures, the Codex Arundel, alongside Codex Forster II from the V&A, and a selection of sheets from the Codex Leicester, widely considered to be one of Leonardo’s most important scientific journals and now owned by Bill Gates.

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Observations on the course of the River Arno: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 149r 

Studies for a perpetual motion wheel  Codex Forster II  ff. 90v (c) Victoria and Albert Museum  London Studies for a perpetual motion wheel  Codex Forster II  ff. 91r (c) Victoria and Albert Museum  London
Studies for a perpetual motion wheel: Codex Forster II, ff. 90v–91r © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Studies on the use of obstacles... Seattle  Bill Gates Collection  Codex Leicester  13B (ff. 13v-24r) © bgC3

Studies on the use of obstacles: Seattle, Bill Gates Collection, Codex Leicester, 13B (ff. 13v–24r) © bgC3

The exhibition explores Leonardo’s fascination with motion, which he considered to be ‘the cause of all life’. It reveals the major role he ascribed to motion in his quest to understand the natural world and discover the rigorous laws which govern nature. In particular, it follows his life-long study of water, which for Leonardo was the driving force of nature.

Leonardo’s remarkable notebooks, written in his distinctive mirror writing, are used in the exhibition to illustrate how his detailed studies of natural phenomena — and in particular of water — influenced his work both as an artist and an inventor. With intricate drawings and diagrams crowding every page, visitors will be able to follow Leonardo in his tireless pursuit of knowledge, track his thoughts and experiments, and marvel at his insights into subjects as varied as the formation of waves and air bubbles, river flow, bird flight, and the nature of light and shadow.

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Underwater breathing apparatus: British Library, Arundel MS 263, f. 24v

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion is on at the British Library from 7 June to 8 September 2019. The exhibition is in partnership with Automobili Pininfarina and tickets can be purchased here. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of events inspired by the exhibition, including a range of adult learning courses, free family workshops and an audio-description tour for blind and partially sighted visitors. An exhibition book edited by Dr Juliana Barone, associate curator, is available from the British Library shop.

 

 

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06 June 2019

The curse of the spiritual sword

We have previously reported about our fascination with medieval book curses, added in monastic libraries to ward off thieves and warn careless users. Book curses typically state that those who stole or damaged a book would be spiritually condemned, often including the Greek-Aramaic formula ‘Anathema Maranatha'. For example, during the 12th and 13th centuries monks at Reading Abbey systematically added such curses to their manuscripts containing biblical commentaries (examples include Add MS 38687Harley MS 101 and Harley MS 1246).

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Reading Abbey’s book curse in a commentary on Deuteronomy and Joshua (1st quarter of the 13th century): Add MS 38687, f. 150r

We would like to share some new findings that will enable you to protect your favourite books, as well as other prized possessions. One example comes from the so-called ‘Noyon Sacramentary’ (Add MS 82956). This 10th-century manuscript, produced by the monastic community at Noyon Cathedral in northern France, contains masses and prayers for blessings and ceremonies. The manuscript opens with a wrathful curse that would bring down a series of spiritual punishments upon those who stole from or committed any other crime against Noyon Cathedral.

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Noyon Cathedral’s ‘Curse of the Spiritual Sword’ (4th quarter of the 10th century): Add MS 82956, f. 1v

The Noyon Cathedral curse begins: ‘excommunicamus eos et gladio sancti spiritus a vertice capitis usque ad plantam pedis transverberamus’ (‘We will excommunicate them and cut through them with the sword of the Holy Spirit, from the top of the head to the sole of the feet').

It then declares that book-thieves would be condemned to burn in the eternal fire of Hell together with Judas Iscariot, perhaps because they, like Judas, committed betrayal for material gain. Finally, to top it off, these thieves were to remain in the darkness of Hell where they would keep the devil company.

Perhaps an even more powerful curse for protecting your belongings comes from a 12th-century lectionary (containing readings from the Gospels for the Mass) from the Benedictine abbey of Tholey in western Germany (Add MS 29276). The curse is preceded by an itemised list of the monastery’s relics and sacred objects: ‘We have in this monastery of St Peter and St Mauritius eight bookcases of silver, four books of silver, and ten chalices’. Protecting this treasure is a curse that the community would collectively cast upon anyone who stole from the monastery:

‘a sancte matris ecclesiae segregamus ac perpetuae maledictionis anathemate condempnamus . sit que maledictus in domo . in agro . veniantque super eum omnes ille maledictiones . quas dominus per moysen in populum divin[a]e legis prevaricatione se esse missurum. Sitque anathema maranatha . id est pereat in secundo adventu domini. Stix sit ei potus. Amen’.

‘We will segregate him from the mother church and condemn him with the eternal curse of anathema: may he be cursed in the house and on the land, and let all the curses that the Lord cast through Moses onto the transgressors of the Divine Law come upon him. May he be anathema maranatha. That means: may he be damned at the Second Coming of Our Lord (the Last Judgement); may the Styx be his drink. Amen’.

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Tholey Abbey’s ‘Styx-Curse’ (c. 1100–c. 1175): Add MS 29276, f. 162v

This curse encompasses both the eternal sentence to Hell, at the Last Judgement, and the Styx, the principal river of the Underworld. While it may seem unexpected to find a medieval monk referring to the Styx, monasteries gained knowledge about the Underworld through their copies of works such as Virgil's Aeneid . For example, in a 12th-century theological miscellany from the Cistercian abbey of Thame in Oxfordshire (Burney MS 357), the Styx is listed as one of the rivers in Hell, and its name is defined as ‘sadness’ (tristicia).  

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The ‘Stix’ among the ‘Names of the Infernal Waters’ (Nomina Humorum Infernalium) (1st half of the 12th century): Burney MS 357, f. 4v

It's clear that some medieval monks were very resourceful when it came to protecting their most precious treasures. The book curses that they devised indicate not only their knowledge of religious and Classical works, but also the importance they attributed to their sacred books and objects.

To learn more about medieval monastic libraries, and how books were acquired, used and stored, see this article on Medieval monastic libraries by Alison Ray, created as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200. Together with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we have digitised 800 manuscripts from our collections, which you can learn more about on our dedicated Medieval England and France webspace.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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31 May 2019

What does a wheelbarrow have to do with Aristotle?

Visitors to the British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, will no doubt stop to admire a copy of Aristotle’s works on natural sciences, probably made for a medieval student at Oxford University. The careful layout and the perfectly formed gothic handwriting in different styles is impressive, but what will they make of the images on the page?

The page on display shows a decorated letter containing, logically enough, a seated philosopher examining a book and pointing to the heavens. But in the margin there is a man pushing a naked figure in a wheelbarrow, similar to the figures sometimes used to illustrate the fool of Psalm 52, “The fool (insipiens) said in his heart: There is no God” (e.g. in the Rutland Psalter, Add MS 62925). What does this scene have to do with Aristotle?

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A philosopher and a man pushing a fool in a wheelbarrow, Aristotle’s Libri naturales, England (Oxford?), 3rd quarter of the 13th century: Harley MS 3487, f. 22v  

In the 13th century, the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle were translated into Latin and completely transformed ideas on philosophy and natural science in Western Europe. Despite Church disapproval of the study of ‘pagan’ writings that contradicted its teachings, and the subsequent banning of Aristotle’s works in Paris, they soon became key texts in medieval universities. This book contains a collection of the required reading on the Oxford curriculum, complete with glosses and commentaries in the margins and between the lines of text to provide detailed explanations.

But it is the decoration that makes this manuscript unique: it is exceptional for a volume of Aristotle’s works to be so elaborately illustrated at this time. There are 29 historiated initials, one at the beginning of each book or chapter, each representing the text that is to follow. Because there was no earlier tradition of illustrating Aristotle’s texts, the artists had to be innovative. Sometimes they adapted subjects from other genres, and sometimes they invented new ones.

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Books being burned before a king, a friar and others, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 4r

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the initials is the first in the manuscript, on the opening page of Physics. The decorated letter on this page depicts a small child throwing books onto a fire before a king, a friar and other figures.  Scholars have suggested that this scene represents the burning of books of Aristotle’s works in Paris in 1210, while the friar represents the role played by the Franciscans and other preaching orders in teaching Aristotle.

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A windmill and a bird, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 161r

Perhaps the most famous image in this manuscript is one of the earliest depictions of a windmill. This is found at the beginning of the book Meteorologica, which includes early accounts of weather phenomena. Here a man is adjusting the direction of a windmill to catch the wind. Beneath, a bird holds a twig in its beak, perhaps referring to the way that birds use the wind in flight.

Now, let’s return to the illustration of a philosopher star-gazing and a fool riding in a wheelbarrow on the page on display in the exhibition. It appears at the beginning of book IV of Physics, which studies the Heavens. A possible interpretation for this image is that it juxtaposes knowledge and foolishness. The seated philosopher inside the letter is looking up at the stars, but above him the fool could be a reminder that too much knowledge leads to madness. But as with many of the marginal images in the manuscript, there are no definite explanations.

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A coat of arms, possibly of a son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford, with one man blowing a horn and another eating, Aristotle’s Libri naturales: Harley MS 3487, f. 216r

This manuscript is an example of the skills that came together in 13th-century Oxford to produce a work that is both educational and entertaining. The thoughtful explanations and interpretations of the text, the remarkable planning and layout, and the innovative decoration and illustration, make it easy and delightful to use. The owner must have been one lucky student, and indeed a likely candidate would be the son of Geoffrey Beauchamp of Bedford (fl. c. 1256), member of one of the richest and most powerful families in England at the time.

 

Chantry Westwell

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29 May 2019

Crocodiles rock (never smile at a manuscript)

Regular readers of our Blog may have noticed that animals are one of our favourite subjects, especially the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the bestiary. Some of these creatures, like the unicorn or bonnacon, are no longer to be seen; but one of the strangest beasts is still thriving (though please don’t get too close) — the crocodile. The British Library's bestiaries contain a huge variety of images of these creatures, by medieval artists who were compelled to use their imagination  — after all, one rarely encountered a crocodile when fishing for eels in the Essex mud-flats in the 13th century!

A fairly realistic depiction of a crocodile is found in this bestiary, which was in the library of Rochester Priory in the 14th century and may have been made there. This manuscript, as well as two others described in this blogpost (Royal MS 12 C XIX and Harley MS 3244), is currently on display in the exhibition Book of Beasts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

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A crocodile in the ‘Rochester Bestiary’, 2nd quarter of the 13th century: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 24r

The crocodile is often accompanied by its enemy, a snake-like beast from the Nile, known as the hydrus. The text describes how, when a crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the hydrus rolls in the mud to become slippery; it slithers into the crocodile’s mouth before being swallowed. It then begins to eat its way out, killing the crocodile in the process. In the bestiary tradition, animal behaviours are seen as moral allegories; in this case the crocodile’s mouth represents the mouth of Hell, while the hydrus is Christ, who enters through the gate of Hell to redeem lost souls. In this manuscript there are two drawings of crocodiles, one with the hydrus and the other eating fish.

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A beaver with a man blowing a horn, a crocodile swallowing a hydrus, a crocodile eating fish, and a winged hyena (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Stowe MS 1067, ff. 2v–3r

Guillaume le Clerc, a Norman cleric and early compiler of the bestiary, described crocodiles as being shaped ‘somewhat like an ox’. The artist of one bestiary seems to have followed this trend, as their crocodile has long legs and looks more like a horse.

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Bears and a crocodile (England, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 13th century): Sloane MS 3544, f. 10v

Later in the same volume, a different artist drew a more plausible shape, although this crocodile's ears are rather dog-like.

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Another crocodile in Sloane MS 3544, f. 43r

All the early writers who described crocodiles, from Pliny to Isidore to Mandeville, were agreed that they are ferocious beasts. Some alluded to their taste for humans, while Mandeville and Bartholomaeus Anglicus mentioned the tears that they cried before swallowing their hapless prey. In this image, a crocodile (labelled 'serpens') is shown swallowing a man who is stabbing him, while a hydra emerges from a hole it has bitten in his side.

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A crocodile swallowing a man (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 3244, f. 43r 

For pure invention, the prize goes to these two artists, whose creatures resemble dinosaurs or prehistoric insects.

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A crocodile swallowing a hydrus (England, 1st quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 12v

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A crocodile with a knotted tail (England, early 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 62v. This manuscript was digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Bestiaries are not the only manuscripts to contain images of crocodiles. Here are two in the margins of Psalters, one made in Constantinople and the other in England.

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A crocodile in the Bristol Psalter (Constantinople, 11th century): Add MS 40731, f. 92r

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A crocodile in the Queen Mary Psalter (England, between 1310 and 1320): Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 102v

So why blog about crocodiles? They are certainly not cuddly creatures like the dogs, cats, elephants, hedgehogs, beavers or owls that we've blogged about before. The idea came to me while I was writing another blogpost on the works of Homer. What do crocodiles have to do with Homer, one might ask? The missing link is the remarkable survival of two Egyptian papyri containing his writings, known as the ‘Harris Homer’, one in roll-form and one in book-form (Papyrus 107 and Papyrus 126).

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The Harris Homer (Egypt, 1st–2nd century): Papyrus 107, f. 1r

The papyrus roll was found in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on 9 December 1849, before being acquired by Mr A. C. Harris. This story has been investigated by Brent Nongbri in his article ‘The Crocodile pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum's acquisition of the Harris Homers’, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 54 (2017), 207–17. Apparently the pit was a cave on the banks of the Nile containing thousands of crocodile and human mummies, much visited by 19th-century travellers who wished to experience the thrill of being attacked by bats and encountering the spirits of dead crocodiles.

 

Chantry Westwell

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27 May 2019

Let's get quizzical

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It's time to rack your brains. The ten images found here can all be located on our Medieval England and France website. Can you identify them all? How long does it take you?

When you've done that, answer the simple question at the end. Pencils at the ready!

Quiz 1

Quiz 2 - Copy

Quiz 9

Quiz 3

Quiz 10

Quiz 8

Quiz 4

Quiz 5

Quiz 7

Quiz 6

So, you've found every image on our website? Now we'd like you to add up all the manuscript numbers (for instance, Add MS 12345) and tell us the final answer. You can either send it as a comment below or tweet it to @BLMedieval with the hashtag #fiendishquiz. It couldn't be easier!

If that's all too devious for you, you might like to relax by watching this wonderful video of a whale, made as part of our project sponsored by The Polonsky Foundation. It's based on one of the medieval manuscripts we've recently digitised, in collaboration with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

 

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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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