A decorated 11th-century manuscript of Lucan’s ‘Civil War’

Medieval manuscripts of classical works are only rarely illustrated and decorated. Yet, surprises abound. This week I was looking at a manuscript of Lucan’s Civil War, also known as Pharsalia: British Library Harley 2728. The manuscript was produced in Germany sometimes between 1030-1060. Heavily annotated – as most classical texts were -, it was also decorated with beautiful initials for the beginning of each of the ten books. Many of the explanatory marginal notes are written in geometrical patterns. There are several diagrams (including one for the mountains of Greece) and illustrations which also help explain some of the text. The words of Cornelia’s lament in book 8 are marked with musical neumes, as if the passage was meant to be sung.

See below for images of all these highlights.

Unfortunately, the manuscript has not yet been digitised. My detailed description of it will soon be available in the British Library’s online catalogue.

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Give me an I for iamque….
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and a P for propulit’
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And an A for at procul
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… and several other ….
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… initials …. 
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… with remarkable interlace …..
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… and foliate motifs ….
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… becoming more and more complex ….
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… all the way to the end.




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The marginal notes explained the main texts. They are known as ‘scholia’ or glosses. Often, these were written in geometric patterns, like these upside-down triangles
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An initial ‘B’ for the word’ bella’ was planned, but left unfinished. The half-circles of the B-compartments were also traced.
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Some celebrate the end of a project with champagne, others with extravagant writing. The last lines of the Pharsalia were written in ‘dramatic’ script, so though to say: I, the scribe, am so happy to get this over with. Often, scribes expressed the sentiment in writing just after the last words in what is known as a ‘colophon’. The last two words read: Explicitn Lucanus (Here ends Lucan).
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Who thought that Lucan could be sung as plainchant? The musical notation (known as ‘neumes’) is entered on the words corresponding to Cornelia’s speech in book 8 of The Civil War. This speech is marked with neumes in just 8 other manuscripts of Lucan’s text.
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The main (sacred?) mountains in Greece are represented around Thessaly (Tessalia): Ossa, Athos, Pindus, Olympus and Pelion (clockwise from the top)
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A diagram of the Earth showing the habitable and inhabitable regions. The extremes (too cold) and the equator (too hot) were deemed inhabitable. The two other bands were thought to support human life.
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A mini-map of the area around Gibraltar with the Atlantic Ocean at the top. The two horns are the pillars of Hercules
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A slightly-faded T-O map (O for the circle of the earth, and the T dividing it into Asia, Europe and Africa, with Asia at the top) showing the four main winds
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Another mini representation of the Earth with the circle of the air



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