THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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67 posts categorized "Science"

11 June 2020

Did Henry VIII believe in unicorns?

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Did King Henry VIII believe in unicorns? That is perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from a manuscript that reveals intimate details of the final years of Henry's life (1481–1547). We also learn from the same manuscript that he was partial to dragon's blood, and that he prescribed a cure for his fourth wife's ‘colde and wyndie causses’.

Henry suffered from poor health in his later years. In 1536, in a jousting accident at Greenwich Palace, his legs were crushed under a fully-armoured horse, as a result of which he developed chronic ulcers. These were lanced by his physicians with red-hot pokers, but our manuscript shows that they also used more subtle methods and applied medicines made from natural ingredients. Made in the 1540s, Sloane MS 1047 contains a series of elaborate medical recipes, some of which were devised by Henry himself. It is interesting to observe in this particular manuscript the king's own endeavours as an amateur medical practitioner.

King Henry seated on a throne with, to his left, his physicians John Chambre and William Butts

Detail of King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1543 (The Worshipful Company of Barbers)

Many of the treatments in this collection are attributed to his four principal royal physicians: Walter Cromer (d. c. 1547); the Venetian Augustin de Angustinius (fl. 1520s–1540s); William Butts (c. 1486–1545); and John Chambre (1470–1549). The latter two are famously depicted next to the king on Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons. Henry’s physicians worked separately or collaboratively to create many of the more than 100 plasters, spasmadraps (dipped plasters), ointments, balms, waters, lotions, decoctions and cataplasms (poultices) that make up the contents of Sloane MS 1047. An account book for the years 1543–1544 indicates that they were rewarded well for their services.

Above: two payments to 'doctor Chambre servant' and 'doctor Augustyne servant'; Below: a payment to 'doctour Buttes phisicioun'

Henry VIII’s payments to ‘doctor’ John Chambre, Augustin de Angustinius, and William Butts ‘phisicioun’ (England, 1543–1544): Add MS 59900, ff. 70v and 92v

Remarkably, more than thirty of the treatments are attributed to Henry himself. His recipes identify several of his royal palaces, including Fotheringhay Castle, Greenwich Palace and Hampton Court, as well as Cawood Castle in North Yorkshire, as the locations where he wrote and tested his recipes, suggesting that he took his apothecary equipment on his travels. A typical introduction to his recipes reads as follows:

‘An Oyntement devised by the Kinges Maiestie made at Westminster and devised at Grenewich to take awaye Inflammations, and to cease payne, and heale ulcers, called the gray plaster’

The introduction to Henry VIII’s ‘Grey Plaster’, written in brown ink

Henry VIII’s ‘Grey Plaster’ for leg ulcers (England, c. 1540–c. 1545): Sloane MS 1047, f. 44r

Henry’s treatments use numerous plant-based ingredients: fruits and flowers for making pulp of apples (‘pulpe of appulls’), water of strawberries (‘water of Strawe beries’), wine of pomegranates (‘wyne of pomegranate’), oil of lilies (‘oyle of lyllies’), powder of red damask rose leaves (‘pouldre of redde damaske rose leaves’), and water of honeysuckle flowers (‘water of honye suckle flowres’); a wide range of plant leaves with sedative properties, such as henbane (‘henbayne’), mandragora (‘mandrake’), black poppy (‘blacke poppie’), and the poisonous nightshade; wood of guaiacum that was imported from the ‘New World’ (tropical America) and referred to as ‘wood of life’ (lignum vitae) for its purported healing properties, and the red resin of the dragon blood tree that was known as dragon’s blood (sanguis draconis).

Red dots representing the resin from the Dragon Blood Tree that was used for healing wounds

The Dragon Blood Tree in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280–c. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 89r

Henry and his physicians also made ample use of medicinal waters, metals, minerals and stones. Their recipes included aqua mirabilis (‘miracle water’), a water mixed with spirit-infused spices; ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was a popular cosmetic skin whitener in 16th-century England; Armenian bole, a medicinal red clay from Armenia; terra sigillata, sealed cakes of mineral-rich earth associated with the Greek isle of Lemnos; and lapis lazuli, a blue stone that was highly sought after by illuminators and painters for making the pigment ultramarine, but that was also used for medicinal purposes and already recommended by the Greek physician Dioscorides (c. 49–90) for treating ulcers.

A drawing of the blue stone lapis lazuli

Lapis lazuli in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280–c. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 51v

Unicorn horn may be the most surprising ingredient in Henry’s treatments. The legendary animal’s single horn was ascribed great cleansing and healing powers in the late Middle Ages. The demand for it created a trade in which narwhal tusk and walrus ivory were sold off as unicorn horn. English kings and queens were regular buyers: Elizabeth I drank from a unicorn horn cup, and James I used a unicorn horn potion for his ailing son. No less than ten of Henry’s recipes require ‘cornu unicornu’ or ‘unicornis horne’. One of these is the ‘Plaster of Horns’.   

Plaster of Horns:

Take 4 ounces of finely powdered litharge of gold [a mineral mixed with lead oxide], 2 ounces of ceruse, unicorn’s horn, hartshorn, oyster shell, red coral, and burn them all up. Take half a pint of oil of roses, and 2 ounces of white vinegar of roses. Put them all in a clean pan on a gentle fire, boiling them while constantly stirring, until it is like a plaster, and then prepare rolls out of them and keep them for your use.

(‘Emplastrum de cornubus:

Take lytherge of golde fynely pouldered iiij unces, ceruse ij unces, unicornes horne, hartes horne, oyster shelles, redd corall, all thiese combusted, and well preparated of eche of them one unce, take half a pynte of oyle of rosys, and ij unces of white vineacre of roses. Putt them all in a fair basyn over a softe fyre, boyling and styrring them styll, tyll yt be plaster wyse, and then make it upp in rolles and kepe it to your use’)

A plaster with unicorn’s horn England, written in brown ink

A plaster with unicorn’s horn: Sloane MS 1047, f. 20v

A unicorn lying down before a virgin who holds his horn while sitting on the trunk of a tree, drawn in brown ink

The unicorn in the Historia Animalium (Italy, 1595): Add MS 82955, f. 191r

Henry also used his knowledge to provide medical advice to others. One recipe in Sloane MS 1047 is addressed to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, queen consort from 6 January to 9 July 1540, and claims to ‘mollifie, and resolve, conforte and cease payne of colde and wyndie causses’.

The introduction to a plaster, presumably made by Henry VIII, for Anne of Cleves

‘A plaster for my ladye Anne of Cleve’: Sloane MS 1047, f. 30v

We do not know how successful Henry’s treatments were, but sources suggest that his medical advice was much valued. Sloane MS 4 contains a recipe for ‘A Medycyn for the pestylence’ that is attributed to Henry (‘Kyng Henry the Eight’) and claims that it ‘hath helpyd dyvers persons’. Moreover, in a letter to Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Brian Tuke (d. 1545), Henry’s secretary, stated that the king gave him ‘remedies as any learned physician in England could do’ [‘remedyes as any connyng phisician in England coude do'].

A passage from a letter by Sir Brian Tuke to Cardinal Wolsey in which he compares Henry VIII to a learned physician, written in brown ink

Sir Brian Tuke likens Henry VIII to a ‘connyng phisician’ (Hunsdon, 1528): Cotton MS Titus B I, f. 305v

In turning the pages of Sloane MS 1047, one can imagine Henry discussing new medical treatments with his royal physicians, learning from them and sharing his own experiences as both a practitioner and patient. Although Henry is often remembered for his tyranny, our manuscript reminds us that he was highly educated, greatly interested in medicine, and continued to learn and apply his knowledge until the end of his life. 

You can now explore Henry VIII’s treatments — and spot all his unicorn recipes — on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

31 January 2020

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon

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In modern times, ‘Moon Trees’ are trees that grew from the seeds that were taken into the Moon’s orbit by Apollo 14, which launched for the third manned mission to the Moon on 31 January in 1971. Medieval people, in contrast, would have associated ‘Moon Trees’ with an entirely different undertaking: the campaign begun in 326 BC by Alexander the Great (353–323 BC), king of the Greek empire of Macedon, with a view to conquering the world. The fictional 4th-century Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem (Letter of Alexander to Aristotle) tells that Alexander, during his expedition to India, visited a grove with two holy trees. Inside the grove, he met a high priest of more than ten feet tall who explained that one tree was male, could speak the Indian language, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Sun; the other tree was female, could speak Greek, and foretold one’s future at the rising of the Moon. After Alexander prayed at the feet of the holy trees, they answered him that he would conquer the world but die from poisoning in Babylon before he could return home.

Alexander the Great, wearing a crown, with three of his men behind him, kneeling with his hands lifted in prayer at the foot of two trees. The trees feature symbols of the sun and moon, and are flanked by a tall figure wearing a red tunic, representing a high priest.

Alexander and his followers praying at the Trees of the Sun and the Moon guided by a high priest (England, 1333c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 32r

The oracle trees feature in several Alexander narratives. One of these is the Roman d'Alexandre en prose, a French translation of a 10th-century Latin version of a Greek Alexander romance, spuriously attributed to the historian Callisthenes (c. 360–c. 327 BC). In illustrated copies of this narrative, the oracle trees are sometimes conflated with the ‘Dry Tree’, another tree that Alexander visited and in whose branches he found the phoenix, a legendary self-resurrecting bird.

Alexander the Great, wearing a crown, with three of his men behind him, kneeling and with his hands lifted in prayer at the foot of two trees, featuring symbols of the sun and moon among their leaves. Between the two trees is another tree which has no leaves, but features a large bird (a Phoenix) with purple and gold colours in its branches. The trees are flanked by an old man in a grey robe, representing a high priest.

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon and the Dry Tree (Rouen, 14441445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 18v

The oracle trees were well-known to medieval encyclopaedists and chroniclers. In the 13th-century L’Image du monde (Mirror of the World), Gautier de Metz referred to them as reference points. In the 13th-century Speculum Historiale (Mirror of History), Vincent of Beauvais stated that the balm of the trees allowed the priests at the grove to live for 300 years. The 14th-century Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden attributed their longevity to the trees’ apples. A unique Middle English translation of the Polychronicon in Harley MS 2261 (f. 25v) describes the trees as follows:

‘The Trees of the Sun and the Moon are in India, and by their apples priests live for 500 years’

[‘The trees of the sonne and of the moone be in ynde, by the apples of whom prestes lyffede by vc yeres’]

John Mandeville, the supposed author of a fictional travel memoir describing the wonders of the Holy Land, Africa, and Asia, located the ‘Trees of the Sun and the Moon that spoke to King Alexander’ (‘tres of þe sunne and of þe monne þat spak to kyng alysaundre’) in a desert beyond the unidentified river ‘Beaumare’, but noted that he was unable to visit the trees because of the dangerous animals in the desert, such as dragons, serpents, lions and elephants.

Two priests, one wearing a red tunic, picking and eating apples in the grove of the Trees Sun and the Moon with wild animals emerging from its bushes below, including a lion and an elephant in the right lower corner.

Dangerous animals surrounding the grove of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, in Mandeville’s Travels (England: 1st half of the 15th century): Harley MS 3954, f. 64r

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon were also included on medieval world maps (mappaemundi). The Higden map (Royal MS 14 C IX, f. 1v), for example, marks the spot where ‘Alexander prayed for an answer from the trees’ (‘hic alexander petebat responsum ab arboribus’). Other mappaemundi, such as the 12th-century Tournai Map of Asia (Add MS 10049, f. 64v) and the 13th-century Psalter world map (Add MS 28681, f. 9r), also illustrate the oracle trees.

Christ wearing a blue and red robe, lifting both arms, and holding a small red orb of the world, while being flanked by two angels swinging censers above a circular map of the world. The upper half of the world map that is here visible features roundels with human faces representing the twelve winds of Aristotle in a green ring that goes around the map. Immediately below the roundel with the human face at the very top of the map is another roundel, representing the Garden of Eden, that features two figures facing a tree against a dark background. On the right side of this roundel, are drawn two yellow trees, representing the Trees of the Sun and the Moon.

The Trees of the Sun and the Moon (Arbor Solis and Arbor Lunae) close to the Garden of Eden on the Psalter world map (London, 12621300): Add MS 28681, f. 9r

Two trees with curled branches or leaves drawn in brown ink at the top of the map and on the left side of the Red Sea, which is here highlighted with a yellow colour.

The ‘Oracle of the Sun and the Moon’ (Oraculum solis et lunae) next to the Red Sea (Rubrum Mare) on the Tournai Map of Asia (possibly Tournai, 12th century): Add MS 10049, f. 64v

With increasing expeditions into Asia, mapmakers began to prefer Africa as the location of legendary sites. It is for this reason that the Harleian Mappemonde (Add MS 5413), which was produced around 1540, does not locate the oracle trees in India but in sub-Saharan Africa. Their name has been changed as well, and they are now simply referred to as ‘The Trees of the Moon’ (‘Les arbres de la lune’). These changes suggest that the mapmaker conflated these trees with the equally legendary ‘Mountains of the Moon’. According to the Greek geographer Ptolemy (c. AD 100–c. 170)’ in his  Geographia, these mountains were the source of the river Nile. A certain merchant named Diogenes who was crossing East Africa discovered them and observed that their snow-melt created two lakes from which the Nile originates. On the Harleian Mappemonde, the Trees of the Moon are placed exactly below the Mountains of the Moon.

Two groups of trees with a crescent moon above them, below green hills from which rivers flow that form two lakes from which two larger rivers originate that form the river Nile.

The Trees of the Moon on the Harleian Mappemonde (possibly Dieppe, c. 1540): Add MS 5413

The Mountains of the Moon highlighted in yellow, from which small rivers flow into two lakes. From these lakes flow larger rivers that join and form the river Nile.

The Mountains of the Moon in Ptolemy’s Geographia (Florence, 3rd quarter of the 15th century): Harley 7182, f. 85r

As people continued to explore the world , belief in the existence of the Trees of the Sun and the Moon waned. Ironically, it is because of continued explorations — namely, the Apollo 14 mission, which gave us the Moon Trees — that their name continues to this day.

 

Clarck Drieshen

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

13 September 2019

Gardeners' Question Time

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Today's episode of BBC Radio 4' popular Gardeners' Question Time (repeated on Sunday at 14:00) was recorded here at the British Library.

If you listen carefully, as well as hearing Bob Flowerdew, Anne Swithinbank and James Wong discussing the size of someone's melons, you may catch our curators Julian Harrison and Maddie Smith introducing some of the nation's favourite herbals. Julian showed presenter Matt Biggs pages from the Old English illustrated herbal (Cotton MS Vitellius C III). Sadly, this manuscript was badly damaged by fire in 1731, but Matt and Julian discussed how it contains an important record of early plant lore. Some of the plants it illustrates were not native to early medieval England, indicating that this book was based on earlier texts compiled around the Mediterranean. Matt was fascinated in particular with the accuracy of the drawings: he recognized this depiction of brassica without being able to read the original Old English text.

A page from the Old English herbal, showing brassica on the right

A plant of the brassica family in the Old English illustrated herbal: Cotton MS Vitellius C III, f. 56v

Julian also showed Matt this early 16th-century German herbal (Harley MS 3736), which has a series of idiosyncratic illustrations. You may have come across the manuscript before as it was open (on the mandrake page) in our exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic. The page shown here depicts what was once thought to be the Emperor Charlemagne (died 814) kneeling in front of a plant pierced by an arrow. The plant is named 'Carlina' and the caption explains that an angel advised him to eat it in order to be purged of poison. Since the recording, we have realised that the genus 'Carlina' was actually named in honour of Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519–1556), and this helps us to date the manuscript with more accuracy.

The Emperor Charles kneeling before a plant

The Emperor Charles and 'Carlina' in Giovanni Cadamasto's herbal: Harley MS 3736, f. 20r

Maddie presented the story of Elizabeth Blackwell's A Curious Herbal, made in the 1730s in order to fund her husband's release from a debtors' prison. You can read more about the story of Elizabeth Blackwell on our Treasures pages.

Gardener's Question Time is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 13 September (15:00), repeated on Sunday, 15 September.

 

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20 July 2019

Art and science in Renaissance Italy

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Here at the British Library we’re big fans of Renaissance art and science. It’s the subject of our current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion (7 June–8 September 2019), and we also have a display about it in our permanent free exhibition space, The Treasures Gallery. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the beauties you can see in the Treasures display.

Early Renaissance Italy witnessed a remarkable flowering of the arts and sciences. Humanist scholars looked to medieval libraries to discover works from the past, which they copied, studied and developed in new ways. They were particularly interested in discovering classical works of ancient Greek and Roman culture, building on the movement to recover classical texts that had been taking place since the 12th century. But they were also stimulated by works of medieval science, both from the Latin and Arabic traditions.

An opening from a medieval manuscript with pictures of brightly coloured plants and annotations.
Codex Bellunensis, North-East Italy, early 15th century:

 

The increased study of plants during the Renaissance lead towards the development of the modern field of botany. In medieval Europe, knowledge about plants and their medicinal properties was transmitted in illustrated manuscripts known as herbals. They were based on ancient Latin and Greek sources, compiled and updated by medieval scholars. In the Renaissance, people started to revise herbals based on first-hand examinations of plants. This manuscript, known as the Codex Bellunensis, is largely an adaptation of the ancient work on medicinal plants, De Materia Medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides. But it also includes observations of local flora, in this case from the lower Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. On the left is the earliest known representation of the plant edelweiss, shown alongside eupatorium, agrimony and valerian.

An opening from a medieval manuscript showing a text page with geometric diagrams in the lower margin.
De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitāb al-Manāẓir, Italy, late 14th century:

Renaissance scholars also looked to the Arabic world as a source of knowledge. This manuscript contains De aspectibus, a Latin translation of Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) by the 11th-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen. This work was the first to systematically demonstrate that vision is the result of light reflecting off objects and entering the eye. The book also includes ‘Alhazen's problem’, a mathematical problem concerning the reflection of light from spherical mirrors that was not solved algebraically until 1965. Translated into Latin around 1200, the work was carefully studied by western thinkers such as Roger Bacon (c.1219/20–c.1292) and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519). The pages shown here examine the subject of binocular vision, with the diagrams illustrating how the visual axes of the two eyes, labelled ‘a’ and ‘g’, intersect.

 

A page from a medieval manuscript showing an illustration of two bears on either side of a snake, with dots of gold representing stars.
Aratea, a Latin translation by Germanicus of Aratus’ Phaenomena, Florence, 1465–1475:

The Aratea is a poem about the ancient constellations and their mythological origins. It was originally written in Greek by the ancient poet Aratus in the 3rd century BC. This particular Latin translation was made in around AD 14–19 by the Roman general Germanicus, who was the nephew of the emperor Tiberius, the father of Caligula and the grandfather of Nero, no less. The poem was an important source for the study of astronomy throughout the Middle Ages, but the humanist interest in rediscovering authentic classical texts led to a surge in its popularity in 15th-century Italy. This copy belonged to Francesco Sassetti of Florence (1421–90), a prominent banker for the Medici family. The pages on display describe and illustrate the constellations closest to the north celestial pole, Ursa Major (the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear), and Draco.

To see these manuscripts in person, come and visit the Treasures Gallery at the British Library. To learn even more about Renaissance achievements in art and science, don’t miss our current exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion at the British Library from 7 June until 8 September 2019.

Eleanor Jackson

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06 July 2019

Medieval cures for lung disease, gout and vertigo

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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.

A page from an Old English Herbal, showing illustrations of a lion and a bull.

 

A page from an Old English Herbal, showing illustrations of a monkey, an elephant, and a dog.

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).

A page from an Old English Herbal, showing a page of medical recipes added to the manuscript in the 12th century.

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.

A page from an Old English Herbal, showing recipes added to the manuscript during the 12th century.

A page from an Old English Herbal, showing an illustration of a centaur presenting a book to a male figure.

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.

 

Calum Cockburn

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16 June 2019

Explore Leonardo's notebooks

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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).

The exhibition poster for Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion.

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.

A page from the Codex Arundel, showing Leonardo da Vinci's studies of limbs revealed under ultraviolet light.

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.

 

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07 June 2019

Leonardo da Vinci: A Mind in Motion

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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.

A page from the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, showing sketches of the River Arno.

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

A page from the Codex Forster, showing Leonardo da Vinci's studies for a perpetual motion wheel. A page from the Codex Forster, showing Leonardo da Vinci's studies for a perpetual motion wheel.
Studies for a perpetual motion wheel: Codex Forster II, ff. 90v–91r © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A page from the Codex Leicester, showing Leonardo da Vinci's studies on the use of obstacles.

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.

A page from the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, showing his designs for underwater breathing apparatus.

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. It 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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22 February 2019

Through the looking glass

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If you came to our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, you may have seen the Guthlac Roll, made in the late 12th or early 13th century. Look here and you'll notice that two figures in this roll seem to be wearing spectacles. It is very unlikely that these spectacles were part of the original design: exploring how spectacles are represented in medieval manuscripts suggests that both they and the plume rising from the seated figure's cap were added in the early modern period. 

Roudel miniature of Beccelm speaking with St Guthlac’s sister Pega

Roundel of Beccelm speaking with St Guthlac’s sister Pega: Harley Roll Y6, roundel 15

One of the first concrete references to spectacles dates from the early 14th century. On 23 February 1305, Giordano da Rivalto, a Dominican friar from Pisa, delivered a sermon that partly celebrated the ingenuity of mankind. Giordano stated, ‘It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making spectacles (Italian: occhiali)'. Although it is doubtful that spectacles were invented in a single eureka moment, Giordano’s bold claim suggests that spectacles were certainly in use in some areas from the late 13th century.

The earliest surviving artistic depictions of spectacles date to the 14th and 15th centuries. This 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in northern Italy, includes a detail of monks singing a requiem, with one member of the group wearing spectacles.

Detail of a miniature of monks singing a requiem, with the celebrant wearing spectacles

Detail of a miniature of monks singing a requiem, with the celebrant wearing spectacles, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead: Harley MS 2971 f. 109v

An extremely clear illustration of spectacles can be found in another 15th-century Book of Hours, produced in central France, perhaps Tours. In this image, St Mark holds spectacles to his eyes as he reads a book, while his evangelist symbol, the lion, looks on eagerly from the side.

Detail of a miniature of Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes

Detail of a miniature of Mark reading a book and holding spectacles to his eyes: Yates Thompson MS 5, f. 12r

Ancient and medieval texts, many of them pre-dating the surviving artistic depictions, also occasionally refer to transparent materials being used as visual aids. One of the earliest descriptions is found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, completed shortly before his death in AD 79. Pliny shared an anecdote recalling how the emperor Nero used to watch gladiator fights with the assistance of a mineral called a smaragdus. According to Pliny, a smaragdus could be concave to ‘concentrate the vision’ or laid flat to ‘reflect objects just as mirrors do’. It is unclear whether Pliny thought that Nero used the smaragdus as a reflective device or to enhance his vision. Pliny also described how a smaragdus was a green mineral, perhaps emerald, malachite or the green varieties of jasper. It is certainly tempting to suggest that Nero used emeralds to enhance his view of the gladiators. 

Detail of a miniature showing Pliny writing in his study and a landscape

Detail of a miniature in colours and gold showing Pliny writing in his study and a landscape with animals, rivers, the sea, Sun and Moon: Harley MS 2677, f. 1r

In some early texts, scholars explained the scientific principles behind the use of corrective lenses. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy wrote on the topic in his Optics. Two Arabic authors from the 10th and 11th centuries, Ibn Sahl and Alhazen, later expanded on Ptolemy’s explanation. The English friar Roger Bacon also addressed the topic in his Opus Majus (c. 1266), during his time in Paris.

Robert Grosseteste also described the process in his De Iride (‘On the Rainbow’), composed between 1220 and 1235. Grosseteste described how ‘we can make objects at very long distance appear at very close distance’, perhaps describing an early telescope. Grosseteste further remarked how lenses could make small things larger when observing them at close distances, so that it is ‘possible for us to read the smallest letters at incredible distance, or count the sand, or grain, or grass, or anything else so minute’.

Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(mor) containing an image of a bishop

Detail of an historiated initial 'A'(mor) of Robert Grosseteste: Royal MS 6 E V, f. 6r

Perhaps the lenses described by these authors were more akin to modern magnifying glasses rather than spectacles. A 15th-century French translation of Vincent of Beauvais’s Le Miroir Historial contains a possible depiction of such a lens. This manuscript detail depicts Vincent of Beauvais, sitting at a desk and writing his book. It is possible that the glass object in the background was intended to be a kind of lens that may have been used as a reading aid. Of course, it is also possible that this shows a mirror, in reference to the title of the text, rather than a magnifying lens.

Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book

Detail of a miniature of Vincent of Beauvais sitting at a desk and writing his book: Royal MS 14 E I, f. 3r

We might not know exactly when the spectacles were added to the Guthlac Roll, but the history of medieval spectacles is certainly looking a little clearer …

 

Becky Lawton

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Quotations taken from D.E. Eichholz, trans., Pliny: Natural History X (Cambridge, 1962), pp. 212–15, and A.C. Sparavigna, ‘Translation and discussion of the De Iride, a treatise on optics by Robert Grossetste’, International Journal of Sciences (2013), 2:9, pp. 108–13.