One of the most exciting aspects of working with manuscripts is finding signs of former owners, and learning about how they used their manuscripts. Today’s manuscript, a copy of the Gospels in Greek, can only be linked to one certain owner, but there is quite a bit to say about its earlier history nonetheless.
Additional MS 24376, a fine copy of the Four Gospels in Greek (only lacking the last few words of John), can be dated to the fourteenth century on palaeographical grounds. As is often the case, however, the scribe simply wrote the text, and left gaps for illuminated headpieces and initials at the beginning of each Gospel, and for full-page miniatures of each of the Evangelists. For whatever reason, however, this was not done immediately, and even today the manuscript does not have any illuminated headpieces.
Beginning of Gospel of Matthew, from Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 696; Scrivener evan. 600; von Soden ε 328), 14th century, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), Add MS 24376, f. 6r
On f 6r, the gap for the headpiece is clear, and a later illuminator would have been expected to add the “B” of βἰβλος, the first word of the Gospel of Matthew.
A number of inscriptions which would doubtless help us to say more about the manuscript’s history on f 1r have sadly been erased. However, one inscription on f 1v remains, which states that the manuscript was purchased in Constantinople in 1528:
It is clear that shortly after this the manuscript moved north, as full-page miniatures were added some time in the late sixteenth century. These were created by a South Slavonic artist, and the figures in the miniatures are named in Slavonic. However, the text of the Gospels being written by the Evangelists remains Greek, as here in this illumination of Mark:
It’s worth noting that this full-page illumination lacks the traditional border that is more common in Byzantine Gospel manuscripts, and extending the decoration across the entire page is quite unusual. The manuscript likely stayed in the region of Northern Greece and the Southern Balkans after its illumination, as it was acquired by the British Museum along with a number of other manuscripts at the sale of Henry Stanhope Freeman, who had been Vice-Consul at Janina – now in Greece, then in Albania.
Yet there’s one more twist to the tale of this manuscript. At the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, there is a miniature not of Matthew, but of the Annunciation:
At some point, an owner must have noticed this and inserted a picture of Matthew to make up the loss, as f 292r consists of a woodcut on paper, inserted at a late stage. Where, when, and why this happened, however, remains unknown.
During our work here at the British Library, we have been struck recently by the different arrangement of the text in Psalter manuscripts – especially where the Psalms are written in more than one language.
Detail of a historiated initial depicting David as a shepherd, with an illuminated word panel, and the text of Psalm 14 in Latin (‘Dixit insipiens’) with an interlinear Old English gloss, from the Vespasian Psalter, England (?Canterbury), 2nd quarter of the 8th century, Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r
Interlinear glosses were a common way of providing a commentary upon a text. In the Vespasian Psalter, the Psalms were written out in Insular uncial script during the second quarter of the 8th century. A century later, a scribe translated many of the words into Old English, writing them between the lines in Insular cursive minuscule. The wide spacing of the Latin text meant that an almost continuous gloss could be accommodated with ease. This ‘gloss’ is the oldest surviving translation into English of any Biblical text. It reconfigured the manuscript into one that could be used to aid comprehension of the Latin text through a vernacular translation.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 51 (‘Miserere mei’) in Greek, Latin and Arabic, from a trilingual Psalter, S. Italy (Palermo), 1130x1153, Harley MS 5786, f. 73r
Other Psalters were specifically designed to accommodate a translation. Harley MS 5786 is a trilingual Psalter, with three parallel vertical columns containing the Psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic. The manuscript was made at Palermo, within the court circle of King Roger II, between 1130 and 1153. The Psalter reflects the multilingual culture of twelfth-century Sicily, which was inhabited by both Arabs and Greeks. It may have been intended as a homage to Roger’s dominion over southern Italy and parts of northern Africa and Byzantium.
The opening of Psalm 69 (‘Salvum me fac’) in Greek and Latin, with a foliate scroll initial C and a historiated initial S of Christ Pantocrator and David in waters, from a bilingual Psalter, France (Paris), c. 1220-c. 1230, Add MS 47674, f. 58v
Trilingual psalters are very unusual; it is more common to find bilingual versions. This example was made around 1220-1230 in Paris – the most important centre for the production of Bible manuscripts in the thirteenth century. The appeal of a bilingual Psalter in Paris is obvious: a major preoccupation of university study was the understanding of the original meaning of the words of the Bible. The Latin Vulgate in the right-hand column is accompanied in the left-hand column by the Greek Septuagint (itself a translation from the Hebrew Old Testament). A reader could thus trace the translation of the Bible text back to an earlier version, and understand how Greek words had been rendered in Latin. Some university scholars, such as Hugh of St Victor, advocated the study of Hebrew in order to obtain the original and literal meaning of the Bible.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 81 (‘Exultate Deo’), in Latin and Middle French, with puzzle initials, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 77v
The translation of the Psalms into vernacular languages reflects the desire for a different kind of comprehension on the part of the reader: not of its ancient, ‘original’ meaning, but of its meaning in his or her own language. Harley MS 1770 belonged to the Augustinian Priory at Kirkham in Yorkshire. It is a sort of trilingual Psalter. The first part of the manuscript contains the Psalms in Latin and French, again in parallel columns.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 1 (‘Beatus vir’), in Middle English with a Latin title and marginal rubric, from a bilingual Psalter, England, 1st half of the fourteenth century, Harley MS 1770, f. 158r
In the second part of the manuscript, the Psalms have been translated into Middle English rhyming couplets. The author used an earlier Middle English interlinear gloss on the Vulgate, which was itself a modernised version of an Old English glossed Psalter. The opening line of each Psalm is given in Latin: the Psalms were not numbered in medieval Bibles, but were cited using their opening words, so these were essential for navigating the text. Extracts from the Latin Psalms were written in the margins, showing the reader which verse was being translated into Middle English at that point. A reader could also compare the two vernacular versions through the Latin text that accompanied both.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 118 (‘Conftemini Domino’) in a Middle English Psalter, with a historiated initial C and marginal Latin rubric, N. England, 1st quarter of the 15th century, Arundel MS 104, f. 364v
The need for such Latin prompts is illustrated by Arundel MS 104, a copy of the Wycliffite version of the Psalms. Its owner cut selected historiated initials from two other manuscripts (one a Psalter commentary of c. 1220, the other a Psalter of c. 1370) and pasted them into the margins. The subject of an initial rarely corresponds to the content of the Psalm it accompanies. The letter itself, however, always matches the opening letter of the Psalms in Latin – and the Middle English text is glossed in the margin with the opening words of the Psalm in Latin.
Detail of the opening of Psalm 27 (‘Dominus illuminatio mea’), in Latin and Middle English, with a foliate initial D and border, from a bilingual Psalter, Harley MS 1896, England, mid-15th century, Harley MS 1896, f. 16r
An altogether different layout is adopted in this Wycliffite version of the Psalms. The text is arranged in a single column and alternates between the Latin and the Middle English translation – with elements of presentation rather than layout used to differentiate the two. The Latin verses are written in red ink, each prefaced by a small blue initial; the vernacular verses in brown ink, each prefaced by a small pink initial. Incorporating the two versions within a single column meant that the Psalms could be read as a single continuous text. The Latin and Middle English versions may have functioned as a kind of ‘call and response’, aiding the reader’s comprehension of the Latin through the vernacular, like in the Vespasian Psalter. Alternatively, the different coloured inks and initials could also have enabled the reader to focus his or her eyes on one version in particular: to skip over the translated passages and concentrate on the Latin – or, more controversially, to do the reverse, and read the Psalms solely in Middle English.
Work continues on the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, generously funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and others. In July we uploaded 24 new manuscripts, adding to our previous totals. We hope you enjoy paging through our newest manuscripts! Details are of course below:
Add MS 26115, Philostratus, Imagines (TLG 1600.001), imperfect; Constantine Harmenopoulos, Lexicon arranged alphabetically, and some treatises on grammar. 1417? – 1426?.
Decorated headpiece from a Lectionary of the Acts and the Epistles, Add MS 29714, f. 4r
Add MS 29714, Lectionary of the Acts and the Epistles (Gregory-Aland l 257, Scrivener apost. 69). 1306.
Add MS 31949, Gospel Lectionary, imperfect (Gregory-Aland l 337; Scrivener evst 285). Mid 13th century.
Add MS 34107, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 1279; Scrivener evan. 321; von Soden ε 1178). 11th or 12th century.
Fragment of a Gospel lectionary, 12th century, Add MS 36822, f. 3r
Add MS 36822, Fragments of two Gospel Lectionaries (Gregory-Aland l 237, l 2310; Scrivener evst. 237), and an extract from a service-book. 12th-13th century, the last leaf being added in the 17th century.
Add MS 37001, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 2277 [=816]), with canon tables. 11th century, the last leaf having been replaced in the 14th century.
Add MS 37003, New Testament, Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 2279), with Euthalian apparatus and prefaces attributed to Theodoret (printed in von Soden 1902-1910, vol. 1, pp. 350-354), though the text is not that of the printed commentary in PG 82. 14th century, probably created in Constantinople.
Add MS 37004, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes (Gregory-Aland l 1492), imperfect. Late 11th century.
Evangelist miniature, from a Gospel Lectionary, Add MS 37007, f. 3r
Add MS 37007, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes (Gregory-Aland l 1495=[l 459]=[l 1205]), with illuminations of the four Evangelists. 13th century, owned by and likely created at the Monastery of St Nicholas in Pentrochonte, north of Berat, Albania.
Portrait of St John the Evangelist, from a Gospel Lectionary, Add MS 37008, f. 1v
Add MS 37008, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1496 =[l 461]=[ l 1206], with a coloured portrait of St John. Created at the Monastery of St Marina in Berat, Albania, in 1413.
Add MS 37009, Nomocanon of Manuel Malaxos, compiled for Joasaph, Metropolitan of Boeotia, in 1562.
Add MS 37485, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 2291), volume 1, containing Matthew and Mark. Early 13th century.
Evangelist miniature, from a Gospel Lectionary, Add MS 37486, f. 97v
Add MS 37486, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 2291), volume 2, containing Luke and John, and additional texts. Early 14th century.
Add MS 39587, Psalter (Rahlfs 1091). According to Rahlfs (1914), pp. 108-109, this manuscript and Add MS 39588 (Parham MS VI) were originally a single manuscript. 12th century.
Add MS 39592, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 549; Scrivener evan. 536; von Soden A 136), with marginal commentary. 11th century.
Add MS 39595, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 552, Scrivener evan. 539, von Soden ε 252). 2nd half of the 12th century.
Decorated headpiece and text from a New Testament, Acts and Epistles, Add MS 39599, f. 2r
Add MS 39599, New Testament, Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 911 [formerly 227ac., 282p.]; Scrivener act. 217 and Paul. 235; von Soden ο29), with ekphonetic neums, lection notes, and a marginal commentary. The volume also contained Revelation, which was cut out by the Hegoumenos of the Karakallou Monastery, and which is now bound separately as Add MS 39601. The missing portion of the Catholic Epistles, now lost, may have been cut out at the same time. 11th century.
Add MS 39600, New Testament, Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 912 [formerly Gregory 228ac. and 283p.]; Scrivener act. 218, Paul. 236; von Soden α 366, with the prefaces of Euthalius and Theodoret. 13th century, probably created at Mount Athos.
Add MS 40656, Psalter with Canticles (Rahlfs 1650, Gregory-Aland l 932, Scrivener evan. 612). 13th century.
Add MS 40754, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1743). Written in 1256.
Opening of the Psalter with parallel Latin text, Add MS 47674, f. 2r
Add MS 47674, Psalter and Canticles (Rahlfs 1062), with parallel Latin text, and 8 pairs of illuminated initials (historiated at the beginning of the Latin text). 1220s, Paris.
Portrait of the Evangelist John and his eagle, at the beginning of a Gospel lectionary, Add MS 47774, f. 1v
Add MS 47774, Gospel lectionary in Modern Greek in the translation of Maximos Kallioupolites (d.1633), whose New Testament was printed posthumously in 1638. Pen drawings of the four Evangelists, in its original binding. 17th century, possibly created in the Balkans.
Here we go again with the giant list of digitised manuscript hyperlinks, friends! For our new readers, this is a regular feature of the blog; on a quarterly basis we upload a massive spreadsheet for your persusal. As always, this list contains all of the manuscripts to date that have been uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site by those of us in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section. This does not include the work of our colleagues in other departments, of course - but we're pleased that this quarter's list does include the newest Greek manuscripts digitised as part of our ongoing project on these glorious texts. And a few more, including the one below. Happy clicking! Here is the list: Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 17.07.13
Decorated initial 'M' and historiated initial 'B'(eatus) with scenes from the life of King David, from a Psalter and Canticles (Rahlfs 1062), with parallel Latin text, Add MS 47674, f. 2r
The third phase of the British Library's Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project is now well underway. So far, the following items, all Greek biblical items, have been added to Digitised Manuscripts. We will continue to update the blog with new additions over the course of the year, and will also look at some individual manuscripts in more detail in later posts. We are extremely grateful to the foundations and individuals who have funded this project, especially the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, Sam Fogg, the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation and the Thriplow Charitable Trust.
Add MS 24112, Four Gospels in Greek (Gregory-Aland 694; Scrivener evan. 598; von Soden ε 502), written throughout with space for a Latin translation, which has been added for a small number of verses. 15th century, possibly Italy.
Add MS 24373, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 695; Scrivener evan. 599; von Soden ε 327), with illuminated Evangelist portraits. 13th century. Also online is an old 19th-century binding for this manuscript.
Add MS 24374, Fragments from a Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 325; Scrivener evst. 273). 13th century.
Add MS 24376, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 696; Scrivener evan. 600; von Soden ε 328), with illuminated Evangelist portraits (St Mark illustrated above). 14th century (illuminations added in the 16th century), Constantinople.
Add MS 24377, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 326; Scrivener evst. 274), with ekphonetic notation, imperfect. 2nd half of the 12th century, possibly from the Monastery of Patir in southern Italy.
Add MS 24378, Menaion for September, October, November, December, January and February (Gregory-Aland l 927; Scrivener evst. 275). 13th/14th century.
Add MS 24379, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 327; Scrivener evst. 276), imperfect. 14th century.
Add MS 24380, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 328; Scrivener evst. 277), with ekphonetic notation, imperfect. 14th century.
Add MS 27860, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 329; Scrivener evst. 278), imperfect at the beginning, with marginal decorations thruoghout. Late 10th/early 11th century, Southern Italy (possibly Capua). Also online is an old 17th-century binding for this manuscript.
Add MS 27861, Gospels (Gregory-Aland e 698; Scrivener evan 602; von Soden ε 436), imperfect (lacking Matthew). 14th century.
Add MS 28815, New Testament, imperfect (Gregory-Aland 699; Scrivener evst. 603; von Soden δ 104), with Evangelist portraits and a silver-gilt plated cover. Mid-10th century, Constantinople. The subject of a recent blog post along with Egerton 3145.
Add MS 28816, New Testament, from Acts onwards (Gregory-Aland 203; Scrivener act. 232; von Soden α 203), with Euthalian apparatus, and other works. Written between 1108 and 1111 by the monk Andreas in March 1111, in the cell of the monk Meletius in the monastery of the Saviour.
Add MS 28818, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 331; Scrivener evst. 280). 1272, written by the monk Metaxares.
Add MS 29713, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 332; Scrivener evst. 62), imperfect at the beginning. 14th century.
Add MS 31208, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 333; Scrivener evst *281), imperfect. 13th century, possibly Constantinople.
Add MS 31920, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 335; Scrivener evst 283), imperfect and mutilated. 12th century, South Italy (possibly Reggio).
Add MS 32051, Lectionary of the Acts and Epistles, imperfect, with ekphonetic notation (Gregory-Aland l 169; Scrivener apost. 52). 13th century.
Add MS 32341, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 494; Scrivener evan. 325; von Soden ε 437), imperfect. 14th century.
Add MS 33214, New Testament: Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 1765; von Soden α 486). 14th century.
Add MS 33277, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 892; von Soden ε 1016; Scrivener evan. 892). 9th century, with replacement leaves added in the 13th and 16th centuries.
Add MS 34108, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 1280; Scrivener evan. 322; von Soden ε 1319). 12th century, with some replacement leaves added in the 15th century.
Add MS 34602, Fragments from two Psalters (Rahlfs-Fraenkel 2017, 1217) (illustrated above). 7th century and 10th century, Egypt.
Add MS 36751, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes, called ἐκλογάδι(ον) (Gregory-Aland l 1491). Completed in 1008 at the Holy Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos, by the scribe Theophanes.
Add MS 36752, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 2280). 12th century.
Add MS 37005, Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1493). 11th century.
Add MS 37006, Gospel Lectionary with ekphonetic neumes (Gregory-Aland l 1494 [=l 460]). 12th century, with late 13th-century replacements, including a full-page miniature of Christ and a figure identified as Andronicus II Palaeologus (Byzantine emperor 1282-1328) (illustrated above).
Add MS 38538, New Testament, Acts and Epistles (Gregory-Aland 2484), with Euthalian apparatus. Written by the scribe John in 1312
Add MS 39589, Psalter (Rahlfs 1092) with introduction and commentary based on that of Euthymius Zigabenus (PG 128), attributed in the manuscript to Nicephorus Blemmydes, imperfect, with ornamental headpieces and the remains of a miniature of the Psalmist. 2nd half of the 12th century.
Add MS 39590, New Testament, without the book of Revelation (Gregory-Aland 547; Scrivener evan. 534; von Soden δ 157). 11th century.
Add MS 39593, Four Gospels (Gregory-Aland 550; Scrivener evan. 537; von Soden ε 250), with prefaces taken from the commentary of Theophylact, and synaxaria. 12th century.
Add MS 39612, Revelation (Gregory-Aland 2041; Scrivener apoc. 96; von Soden α1475). The quire-numbers on ff 1v and 10v show the manuscript formed part of a larger volume, possibly Athos, Karakallou 121 (268) (Gregory-Aland 1040). 14th century, possibly Mount Athos.
Add MS 39623, Fragments from a Gospel Lectionary (Gregory-Aland l 1742). Late 14th century, possibly Mount Athos.
Egerton MS 3145, Epistles and Revelation (Gregory-Aland 699; Scrivener paul. 266; von Soden δ 104), concluding portion of the manuscript of the entire New Testament of which Add. MS 28815 is the earlier portion. Mid-10th century, Constantinople. Also online is an old (18th century?) binding for this manuscript.
The third phase of the British Library Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project began in April of this year. Over the next twelve months we will be adding over 300 more Greek items to Digitised Manuscripts. While the first batch will go live at the end of June, today we thought we’d give you an early glimpse at the project. We have just uploaded to Digitised Manuscripts two very special manuscripts of the New Testament, Add MS 28815 and Egerton MS 3145. These items are a fitting place to start our project since they were once part of the same manuscript (Gregory-Aland 699).
The manuscript itself was created in the mid-10th century, probably in Constantinople. It originally contained portraits of the four Evangelists, one before each Gospel, but now only the portraits of Luke and John survive (along with another bonus portrait of Luke placed before the Acts of the Apostles):
Miniature of Luke, from a New Testament (imperfect), Constantinople, mid-10th century, Add MS 28815, f. 76v
In addition, it seems as though the manuscript originally contained chapter titles written in gold on purple parchment. These leaves were mostly torn out, but two stubs remain between f. 75 and f. 76, and traces of the chapter titles can still be seen. Unfortunately, for conservation reasons it was only possible to image the first of these two stubs.
Both manuscripts are also blessed with interesting bindings: Egerton MS 3145, when it arrived at the British Museum, was housed in a binding of stamped brown leather over beech boards, covered with green velvet (now kept as Egerton MS 3145/1). This binding however seems to have been made for a larger manuscript.
The cover of Add MS 28815, however, has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly attention. Affixed to the binding are silver-gilt plates worked with figures. While these are post-Byzantine, they probably were based on a 14th-century template. In the centre is a gilt plate with the figures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. The plates at the top and the bottom depict the four Evangelists and Peter and Paul. The plates on the side have proven more controversial: it was long believed that they depicted the overthrow of the heretics Nestorius and Noetus. In a recent article, however, Andreas Rhoby has argued that they actually depict scenes from the life of St Demetrius. As always, you can find out more on the British Library catalogue entry, with further bibliography.
We can’t end without giving some background as to how these two manuscripts came to be in the British Library. Add MS 28815-28830 were acquired from Ivor Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne, in 1871. While the exact provenance of Guest’s manuscripts is not entirely clear, two (Add MS 28817 and Add MS 28821) can be located in the general region of Epirus, while the iconography and binding of Add MS 28820 and to a lesser extent Add MS 28819 may point to origins in that same area. It is quite likely that the entire collection was acquired in Epirus, probably in Janina.
Egerton MS 3145 was formerly in the possession of Angelina, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, who acquired a large quantity of manuscripts at around the same time through the intermediary of the Reverend Reginald Barnes, from a dealer in Janina. After the death of Burdett-Coutts’ husband, about two-thirds of the manuscripts were sold at Sotheby’s in 1922 (at which time the British Museum acquired Add MS 40655 and 40656). Twenty-seven manuscripts were given to Sir Roger Cholmeley’s School at Highgate, and these were deposited in the British Museum in 1938. At this time the Museum purchased two of the manuscripts – Egerton MS 3145 and Egerton MS 3154. (There are also two other Greek manuscripts formerly owned by Burdett-Coutts in the British Library – Add MS 64797 and Egerton MS 3157).
It may well be that the dealer from whom Burdett-Coutts acquired her manuscripts was the same person who sold manuscripts to Guest, and further research in this area could tell us quite a bit more about the prior history of these two manuscripts. We can be thankful, at least, that they have been reunited in the same institution for the past seventy-six years, and that they can now be viewed online on Digitised Manuscripts.
Portrait of St John the Evangelist, from a 12th-century Greek manuscript of the Four Gospels (British Library Add MS 39591, f. 124v).
We are happy to say that imaging has begun on the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, generously funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. In the coming months, we will be adding over 300 more Greek manuscripts to Digitised Manuscripts, and there will be many blog posts detailing the process. Among other exciting items, this phase of the project will see the digitisation of the Codex Crippsianus (Burney MS 95), the Howard Greek Lectionary, a Gospel lectionary owned and annoted by John Ruskin, Burney MS 69, containing illustrated Greek treatises on warfare, and a wide variety of other manuscripts, including many of those from the collections of Charles Burney, Robert Curzon, Samuel Dawes, and Sir Ivor Bertie Guest.
In the meantime, however, we would like to make it known that as a result of this project, a number of Greek manuscripts will be temporarily unavailable to readers between now and March 2015. These items will typically be unavailable for 8-12 weeks while preparation and imaging take place. Once digitised the material will become available online in addition to being available for consultation in our Manuscripts Reading Room.
We strongly advise readers intending to consult Greek manuscripts that have not already been made available on Digitised Manuscripts to contact the British Library's Manuscripts Reference Team (firstname.lastname@example.org) before planning a visit. Please note that this project will not affect the availability of any Greek papyri.
We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause. We look forward to sharing more images of our wonderful Greek manuscripts with you all!
In a previous blog post we talked about the Constitution of Athens, one of the most spectacular papyrus rolls preserved from antiquity. But the truth is that most papyrus fragments are much smaller, and often preserve only part of the text they originally contained. Even the Constitution of Athens papyrus is incomplete, after all!
Fragment of the Aristotelian Constitution of Athens (Ἀθηναίων Πολιτεία), Papyrus 131, roll 1 verso
While this can be frustrating, it also presents an exciting challenge to papyrologists. Sometimes fragmentary texts can be reconstructed based on attestations of the same work in other papyri or in the manuscript tradition. If it is a literary text, or a formulaic legal document, some educated guesswork can help figure out what the wider context might be. Particularly exciting are those instances where a scholar can reunite parts of the same original document, now scattered across the world. An excellent example of this is the recent article by Antonia Sarri in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, who shows that a papyrus in the British Library (Papyrus 2553) and one in Columbia University Library (P. Col. VIII 211) are two halves of the same letter.
A great deal of Greek poetry has only been preserved in papyrus fragments. In the case of some authors, such as Archilochus, Simonides, and Sappho, discoveries even in the last few decades have added greatly to what we know of their works, and in some cases have caused scholars to have to rethink some long-held beliefs about the nature of early Greek poetry. The British Library has only a single fragment of Sappho, a very early arrival from the great collection of papyri found at Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy. I 7).
Fragment of a poem by Sappho concerning her brother Charaxus, Papyrus 739
But as fragments of Sappho go, it’s a pretty good one – we can be fairly sure of the text of two stanzas, and have a decent chunk of three more. In the poem, Sappho prays for the safe return for her brother and hopes that they can be reconciled. This is presumably Charaxos, whose falling-out with his sister is described by Herodotus (2.134-5), and who is named in the new Sappho poem published earlier this year.
While the text is exciting in itself, there is something very special about viewing the original papyrus, which helps to give a sense of just how serendipitous our knowledge of Sappho’s poetry is. Sappho joins Homer and Sophocles on our Digitised Manuscripts roster of poets on papyrus: we hope to add many more in the future.