Saturday, February 18, 2012

I finger parchment in the British Library

Henry IV's Great Bible, 1410
To the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library. Runs till 13th March. Parchment and vellum on display, with the notice beloved of modern curators “please touch!”  Parchment is sheepskin, vellum calfskin.  You wouldn’t know it, felt like top quality, thick shiny-surface paper.  Well actually you would know it, since it hadn't been cut up, it still had the shape of an animal skin.

The British museum didn’t used to scruple, and maybe still doesn’t for all I know, to disfigure priceless medieval manuscripts with their stamp: MVSEVM BRITANNICVM about an inch square in red ink.

Some truly massive tomes, none more so than the Great Bible of King Henry IV, from about 1410.  630 mm (25 inches) tall, probably used for readings in the royal chapel.  That's it to the left, but for a real feel of it, take a look at this popup image.

Several manuscripts looked as fresh as if they had been made yesterday and boasted large expanses of a startlingly bright blue pigment, of which they were clearly proud. Made from lapis lazuli, a blue stone imported from Afghanistan. This popup is a good example.

Saw the first known instance of a reference book arranged alphabetically. A manuscript encyclopaedia of world knowledge in medieval Latin, dating from about 1370. Omne bonum, about all good things. Open at a page delineating ancilla (servant) and Anglia (England).  By an Exchequer clerk named James le Palmer. Apparently compiled and written for his own personal use, covered topics such as theology, canon law, natural sciences, the history of man, and the liberal arts. A medieval layman's quest for knowledge. A man after my heart you could say.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

I'm writing the story of the Trojan Horse, as part of my collection of children’s stories. Which I hope one day will make me rich. If that occurs I'll let you know.

Meanwhile, what of the proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”? 

The Trojans drag the wooden horse into their
city - as imagined by Wolfgang Petersen in
his 2004 film epic
Troy. Soon Greek soldiers
climb out and open the gates, and the city falls

The scene you are meant to picture is the beach under the walls of Troy. The Trojans are inspecting an enormous wooden horse and debating what it is, what to do with it, and why after 10 long years the besieging Greek army has suddenly disappeared. Some say the horse is a peace offering, some a gift from the gods, and some a trick.

The priest Laocoön declares “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. Although of course he doesn’t, he speaks Latin. For it’s the Latin epic poem The Aeneid which is the source for this story.

Laocoön’s actual words are : Equo no credite Teucri!  Quidiquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

The first part of which means “Place no faith in that horse Trojans! Whatever it is …”. As for the phrase timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, Latin can pack lot of meaning into a few words. Translated literally, this phrase could be “I fear the Greeks even (or perhaps especially) when they come with gifts” or “I fear the Greeks and those who bring gifts”.

The 18th century poet John Dryden, has "Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse." Here's Laocoön’s speech in full, as rendered by Dryden in his 1697 translation.

The saying “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” has become so embedded in the English language that it’s now hard to think of the Latin translated any other way. What I haven't yet found out is, who first came up with this translation?  The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 2004, lists it under Proverbs as “Fear the Greeks bearing gifts”. First found in print late 19th century, but no author given.

What of other modern languages? The only ones I've checked are German and Swedish. Neither has an expression equivalent to “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, though both use the expression “Trojan Horse” the same way that English does, to indicate a treacherous, invasive, gift.