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90 posts categorized "Greek"

13 November 2016

Automata for the People: Greek Scientific Manuscripts Online

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Among the many Greek manuscripts held by the British Library, a small group stand out for their fascinating diagrams, depicting all sorts of marvellous machines and robots powered by steam. Although most of these manuscripts date from the 16th century, the texts they include date back to antiquity and Byzantium. They provide an invaluable insight into aspects of scientific inquiry in antiquity, a side of Graeco-Roman antiquity that is often overlooked in the modern day.

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Hydraulic musical organ powered by a hand-pump from Hero’s Pneumatika. Burney MS 108, f. 60v. Italy, N. (Venice?), 1st quarter of the 16th century.

The earliest reference to robots in Greek antiquity comes in Homer’s Iliad, where Hephaestus, god of fire and craftsmen, has handmaids made of gold who assist him in his forge (Iliad 18.417-20). But it is in the Hellenistic and imperial Roman eras that we find a great outpouring of interest in automata – devices that appear to move of their own accord, powered by steam. As Ian Ruffell outlines in his article on ancient mechanics, newly added to the British Library’s Greek Manuscripts Project Website, the ingenious machines described by writers such as Ctesibius, Philo of Byzantium and Hero of Alexandria raise the question of why ancient technology and experimentation never really took off, especially given the clear interest they had for many writers, both in antiquity and beyond. Even the Roman author Vitruvius, in his monumental work on architecture, included discussion of some of Ctesibius’ inventions. (And although not a Greek manuscript, we cannot resist here mentioning that the British Library holds the oldest extant manuscript of Vitruvius, a Carolingian manuscript from early 9th-century Germany.)

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The title-page of the oldest manuscript of Vitruvius’ De Architectura. Harley MS 2767, f. 1r. Germany, 1st quarter of the 9th century.

Ancient mechanical texts described procedures that may have existed more in theory than in reality, but many other ancient texts survive describing scientific or medical procedures that were put into practice in antiquity. The writings of ancient figures such as Galen, Hippocrates and the author now known only as the Anonymus Londiniensis, tell us about how doctors in antiquity went about observing and treating their patients. For more information on the transmission of Greek medical and philosophical writings, see Aileen Das’ article on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

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The Anonymus Londiniensis papyrus contains part of a treatise on medicine. Papyrus 137, Egypt, 1st century.

While some ancient scientific and philosophical texts were ‘lost’ to the West during the Middle Ages, reappearing only through secondhand translations into Latin from Arabic intermediaries, or in the Renaissance, these texts were known and copied in the Byzantine Empire for centuries. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, Greek scholars migrating to Italy took many manuscripts with them. Shortly afterwards, the development of Greek printing enabled widespread copying of these texts, and led to a renewed interest in Greek science and medicine in Western Europe.

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The Prognosticon of Hippocrates. Harley MS 6295, f. 98r. Eastern Mediterranean, 2nd half of the 15th century.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

07 November 2016

Picturing the Sacred: Byzantine Manuscript Illumination

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Some of the British Library’s most precious manuscripts are those containing beautiful miniatures from the Byzantine world. The majority of these manuscripts are religious in focus, usually Gospels or Psalters, reflecting the central role played by Christianity in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine court functioned as a theocracy, in which the Emperor was seen as God’s representative on earth, acting with divine authority. Religion infused every aspect of Byzantine life, including book production.

Although it is difficult (and somewhat artificial) to distinguish between late antique and early Byzantine art, a useful starting-point is the splendid Golden Canon Tables. Created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century, the manuscript is covered in gold paint, over which the Canon Tables (used to identify parallel passages between the four Gospels in biblical manuscripts) were written, and adorned with floral decoration and small medallions containing portraits of four men. Although they survive only as fragments, they would originally have formed part of an incredibly lavish copy of the Gospels, a testament to the importance of the Bible for the inhabitants of Constantinople at this time.

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The Golden Canon Tables. Additional MS 5111, f. 11r. Constantinople, 6th or 7th century.

The Iconoclastic period (726–842 CE) saw the destruction of many existing works of religious art, and a ban on the production of any new works of art. The prohibition on graven images in the Bible was a source of concern for Christian thinkers in late antiquity and early Byzantium, who worried about the propriety of producing depictions of Jesus and other holy figures. This concern was particularly felt in Byzantium owing to the particular emphasis placed on icons in religious worship there (an emphasis that is still found in the Greek Orthodox tradition today). The impact of iconoclasm has meant that relatively few examples of early Byzantine illumination survive, and those that do, like the Golden Canon Tables, are thus even more precious to us today.

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Depiction of Iconoclasts in the Theodore Psalter. Additional MS 19352, f. 27v. Constantinople, 1066.

After the prohibition on the production of religious art was lifted for the final time in 842, we see the reappearance of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. A number of illuminated Psalters (discussed in more detail in an article by Kalliroe Linardou) actually include images of iconoclasts erasing icons of Jesus. Such images can be found in the Theodore Psalter. On occasion, later owners of the manuscripts have erased the faces of the iconoclasts themselves!

A great emphasis was placed on tradition in Byzantine art. This is why, for instance, there is such great similarity between portraits of the Evangelists in Gospel manuscripts. Yet this stress on tradition also provided an opportunity for artists to distinguish themselves in more subtle ways, and there is clear variation in Byzantine illumination across the Greek-speaking world, as Elisabeth Yota shows in her article on provincial manuscript illumination. Some Greek manuscripts were illuminated by artists from different traditions, as is the case with Harley 5647, in which the portraits were made by a Syriac artist. Comparison of this with, for instance, the portraits in the Guest-Coutts New Testament, show both the strong tradition in terms of how figures are depicted and the room for innovation that was possible. Further examples can be found in Kathleen Maxwell’s article on illuminated Gospel manuscripts.

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 The Evangelist Luke, by a Syriac artist. Harley MS 5647, f. 137v. Eastern Mediterranean, 11th century.

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The Evangelist Luke, in the Guest-Coutts New Testament. Additional MS 28815, f. 76v. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), mid-10th century.

There are more fantastic illuminated Greek manuscripts than we can possibly hope to talk about in a single blog post, so we invite you to explore the collections and articles available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website, and the many manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts!

 Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

20 October 2016

Note to Self: Readers Writing in Greek Manuscripts

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The stories we can tell about manuscripts are not only limited to the texts and images found within them. For as long as books have existed, readers and owners have written notes in them. Sometimes these are notes attempting to explain something difficult in the text, or offering alternative opinions, while at other times they are hastily-written memos of historical events, or simple signatures by later owners. A number of the articles on the new Greek Manuscripts Project Website give us insights into these marginal comments.

Perhaps the most famous example of an annotated Greek manuscript at the British Library is Codex Sinaiticus. Written in the 4th century, it was extensively corrected and annotated over the centuries. Many of the corrections were made by one of the original scribes, editing the work of the others, while other annotations date from later generations. These corrections are incredibly important for telling us about the early history of the Biblical text, which you can read more about in David Parker’s article on ancient Bibles. And for much more information about Codex Sinaiticus, you can consult the Codex Sinaiticus Website.

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John 21:1-21:25. Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f 260r), Eastern Mediterranean (?Palestine), mid-4th century.

During the Byzantine era, many scholars and intellectuals engaged in studying and copying Greek texts from antiquity. On occasion, they would reveal their frustration with their ancient predecessors. A famous example can be found in Harley 5694, the earliest known manuscript of Lucian of Samosata (c. 120–180 CE). In this early 10th-century manuscript, the original owner Arethas of Caesarea attacked Lucian for having taken part in an idolatrous rite. You can read what Arethas said, and much more about the scholars of Byzantium, in Georgi Parpulov’s article on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website. And for more information on the transmission of classical texts, consult Mark Joyal’s article on that topic. 

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Arethas’ attack on Lucian, in Harley 5694, f. 60v. Eastern Mediterranean (Caesarea?), c. 912–914.

Many of the 19th-century owners of Greek manuscripts were less reverential than one might expect. Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche, whose manuscripts were bequeathed to the British Library, inserted notes at the beginning of the volumes he acquired recounting the circumstances in which he obtained them. These can on occasion be quite entertaining, as in Additional 39604, which, Curzon tells us, was used by him as a pillow when he slept by the river Jordan!

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Curzon’s note, pasted into the cover of Additional 39604, a 12th-century Gospel Lectionary.

Perhaps the most radical of all the 19th-century annotators of Greek manuscripts was John Ruskin, who filled the pages of his own Gospel Lectionary with notes on the text of the Bible and on the script used in this particular volume, which he occasionally found frustrating. You can read more about the 19th-century collectors of Greek manuscripts in an article on British Collectors of Greek Manuscripts on the project website.

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A characteristic comment by Ruskin on his Gospel Lectionary, Egerton 3046, f. 126r. Eastern Mediterranean, last quarter of the 11th century-1st quarter of the 12th century.

We conclude with a reminder that many of the annotations and comments in Greek manuscripts await further attention from readers and scholars. Please explore the riches available on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website and on Digitised Manuscripts, and let us know what you find!

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@cillianohogan

 

11 October 2016

Changing the Script

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The scripts found in Greek manuscripts can be seriously daunting for a newcomer. Not only do they have the usual barriers found in manuscripts of all languages — their divergence from printed fonts, their variation over the centuries and across geographical areas, and scribal inconsistencies and peculiarities such as abbreviations — they also tend towards a far greater regularity than we find in, for example, Latin manuscripts over the same historical time period. Only close study and careful guidance from handbooks and experts enable students of Greek manuscripts to identify the subtle variations that distinguish Greek manuscripts of the high Byzantine era.

We can’t hope to provide anything approaching this sort of guidance in a short blogpost, but we hope here to give a very general overview of the history of Greek script and to point towards the many resources available on our Greek Manuscripts Project Website that can help put the changes in Greek bookhands into a wider context.

Ancient and late antique Greek texts written on papyrus tend to be divided into ‘bookhands’ and ‘documentary hands’. The latter vary far more noticeably over time and can be dated with much greater ease — not least because documentary texts are far more likely than ancient literary texts to have dates attached to them. We can see the contrast clearly in two papyri included on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: the Bankes Homer and the Constitution of the Athenians papyrus.

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Example of a Greek bookhand in a papyrus containing Book 24 of Homer’s Iliad (Papyrus 114). Egypt, 2nd century CE.

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Farm accounts from Hermopolis, on the recto of the papyrus containing the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131, f. 1ar). Egypt, 78 CE.

However, it is worth remembering that the lines between these two bookhands can be blurred. Scribes who usually wrote documentary texts could occasionally be called upon to copy out literary texts. The text of the Constitution of the Athenians itself appears to be the result of this sort of copying, as it is written in a fairly cursive-style bookhand. For much more about ancient books and their production contexts, several articles are available on the Greek Manuscripts Project website: Ancient Books, Ancient Libraries, and Greek Bibles in Antiquity.

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The Constitution of the Athenians papyrus (Papyrus 131, f. 1av). Egypt, c. 100 CE.

In Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine period, manuscripts tended to be copied in majuscule or uncial script — in other words, letters corresponding to our upper-case Greek letters. This is a continuation of the ancient ‘bookhands’ and can be seen in many biblical manuscripts including Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus. On occasion, late versions of this hand can be seen to have developed particular characteristics, such as the Sinai-style majuscule to be seen in Additional MS 26113, an important volume containing fragments of hymns from the 8th and 9th centuries.

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Fragments of hymns in the Sinai-style majuscule (Add MS 26113, f. 3r). Eastern Mediterranean (Mount Sinai), 8th-9th century.

While majuscule hands continued to be used for religious books and for decoration well into the 11th century, the minuscule bookhand came to prominence in the 9th century and became the standard hand used in Greek manuscripts. Because it was a cursive script, it could be written more quickly than majuscule, and since the letters tended to be smaller, more text could be accommodated on a single page. Variety in minuscule scripts can be found across the Byzantine Empire: for instance, certain forms, such as those found in the Harley Trilingual Psalter, are characteristic of southern Italy, while other forms indicate a manuscript was copied in Cyprus or the Levant. For more information about Byzantine scribes and books, please see the articles on Byzantine scribes and scholars and Byzantine libraries.

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Example of a south Italian script in the Harley Trilingual Psalter. Harley MS 5786, f. 158r. Italy, S. (Palermo), c. 1130-1150.

The Renaissance copyists based in Italy and France developed their own characteristic style of writing Greek, which both influenced and was later influenced by early Greek typography. The story of these writers can be found in articles on Greek manuscripts at the dawn of print and Greek manuscripts in the 16th century.

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Manuscript of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae written by Zacharias Kalliergis of the Kalliergis press. Royal MS 16 C XXIV, f. 31r. Italy, N. (Venice?), 1st half of the 16th century.

This is only a very brief and incomplete outline of the history of Greek handwriting. You can find many more examples in the hundreds of manuscripts available on Digitised Manuscripts and the many articles and collection items available on the Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

05 October 2016

Reading and Writing Greek in Britain

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The Greek language has a long history in the British Isles. The earliest surviving examples of Greek text found in Britain date from its days as a Roman province, on multi-lingual curse tablets now held by the Museum of London. Although located at the north-western extreme of the Roman Empire, Britain nonetheless saw its share of Greek-speaking soldiers and civilians living within its shores.

It is less clear what happened to any Greek-speakers remaining in Britain after the Romans withdrew around 410. However, by the 7th century, we have clear evidence once again of prominent Greek speakers on the island, when Theodore of Tarsus was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Few in the medieval Latin west could read Greek, but there is clear evidence from early on of an awareness of the importance of Greek as the original language of the Gospels, in particular. So, for instance, we can find Greek letters used occasionally in the Lindisfarne Gospels. At the incipit of the Gospel of Matthew, the word ‘Filii’  (‘son’) is written once with an F and once with a Greek letter Φ instead.

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The incipit from the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the Greek letter Φ in place of an F in the word ‘Filii’. Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r. England (Lindisfarne Priory), c. 700.

The Athelstan Psalter, an Anglo-Saxon manuscript written in Francia and taken to England shortly afterwards, contains Greek prayers transliterated into Latin letters. These examples indicate that even if Greek was not widely understood, its significance as the language of the early Church was recognised by scholars and clergy in medieval Britain. More information about knowledge of Greek in the early medieval West can be found in an article on the British Library’s new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

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Greek Litany and sanctus written in Latin letters. Athelstan Psalter, Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 200v. North-East Francia, 9th century.

The revival of interest in Greek learning in the West during the Renaissance also had an impact on Britain. Schoolboy compositions in Greek written and presented to members of the royal family during the Tudor era are now kept at the British Library. These make it clear that Greek was being taught in some public schools, but as Matthew Adams shows in his article on this topic, its availability varied and depended on a number of factors. There was considerable suspicion of the Greek language in the early 16th century as a result of the appearance of Erasmus’ edition of the Greek New Testament, and the study of Greek was briefly associated with heresy. After the accession of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), however, who was herself a keen student of Greek, the language regained favour and began to be taught more widely in schools.

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The Etheridge Encomium, presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1566. Royal MS 16 C X, f. 1r. England, 1566?

Over the following centuries, increasing interest in Greek in Britain saw the arrival on the island of many manuscripts and printed books in that language. Some notable figures whose collections are now in the British Library from this period include Hans Sloane and Robert Harley. But it was the 19th century, and the great increase in philhellenism resulting from the rise of the Grand Tour, sympathy for the Greek War of Independence, and other factors, that saw the most interest in Greek literature and Greek manuscripts in Britain. Many British aristocrats travelled to Greece and Greek monasteries in the Eastern Mediterranean, and returned with substantial collections of manuscripts. The acquisitions of some of these figures are detailed in an article on British collectors of Greek manuscripts.

These are only a few instances of the long history of knowledge of Greek in Britain. Many more can be found in our collection items, or in the articles to be found on our new Greek Manuscripts Project Website.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval/@CillianOHogan

26 September 2016

Every People Under Heaven

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A major new exhibition on the art of medieval Jerusalem opens this week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, the exhibition brings together art from multiple religious and cultural traditions, providing new insight into the international nature of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and highlighting the stunning artistic richness that survives from the period.

The British Library is proud to be a lender to this exhibition. In addition to a number of items loaned by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections,  three items from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts will be on display. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity for these items to be viewed in the context of many other works of art created around the same time, and helps to reveal the many threads of cross-cultural influence to be found in works from the medieval Eastern Mediterranean and Levant.

The Harley Greek Gospels was produced some time around 1200 either in Cyprus or Palestine. Like many illuminated Byzantine Gospels, it contains portraits of the four Evangelists, one at the beginning of each Gospel book, as well as canon tables decorated with curtains, capitals and birds, and decorated headpieces at the beginning of three of the Gospels. But in addition, Harley 1810 contains 17 framed miniatures depicting narrative scenes from the life of Jesus and his followers throughout the manuscript. Most of these scenes appear in the course of the text of the Gospels, but one, depicting the Nativity, is given special prominence by being placed as the headpiece to the Gospel of Matthew.

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Dormition of the Virgin Mary, Harley MS 1810, f. 174r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

These narrative cycles appear in some Byzantine Gospel books from the second half of the 11th century, but they are relatively unusual. The cycle of images includes depiction of scenes that do not appear in the Bible, for instance on f. 174r, where the depiction of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary can be found, an account that is not found in the text of the Bible. The art is characteristic of Eastern Mediterranean/Levantine book production at this period. The Met has chosen to display the scene of the Annunciation, on f 142r, which comes near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. In this miniature, the architecture depicted is distinctive and perhaps reminiscent of local style.

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The Annunciation, Harley MS 1810, f. 142r. Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1200.

In addition to Harley 1810, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the Melisende Psalter and its ivories on display. Readers of our blog will know our deep love for this manuscript, one of the most stunning works of 12th-century Crusader Art. Probably created for Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem between 1131 and 1153, the manuscript is written in Latin, but shows on every illuminated page the influence of Eastern Mediterranean art. The gold backdrop and architectural styles on display are particularly reminiscent of Byzantine illumination. On display at the Met are the folios depicting the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.

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The Transfiguration, Egerton MS 1139, f. 4v. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem) 1131-1143.

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The Raising of Lazarus, Egerton MS 1139, f. 5r. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

The Melisende Psalter was originally encased in an exquisite binding of two ivory plaques, which contain scenes from the life of David on the upper cover and the six vices and six works of charity on the lower cover. As if carved ivory plaques were not ornate enough, this binding was further adorned with small gemstones.

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Ivory plaque from the upper binding of the Melisende Psalter, depicting scenes from the life of David. Egerton MS 1139/1, f. vr. Eastern Mediterranean (Jerusalem), 1131-1143.

We are delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to enable our North American friends to see some of our favourite manuscripts in person! The exhibition opens on 26 September, and continues until 8 January 2017.

Cillian O'Hogan

@BLMedieval

19 September 2016

The British Library's Greek Manuscripts Project

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Have you ever wondered what books looked like in antiquity? Perhaps you have pondered why some manuscripts are written on paper and some on parchment? Did you know that the ancient Greeks thought up machines and robots powered by steam? These issues and more are taken up on a new web resource dedicated to the study of Greek written heritage. Greek Manuscripts, which officially launches today, is intended to complement and promote the hundreds of Greek manuscripts digitised by the British Library in recent years. The website contains articles on a wide variety of subjects relating to Greek papyri and manuscripts, written by experts from the UK, continental Europe, and North America. Additionally, several videos provide short visual introductions to key topics. Collection items discussed in the articles are given separate item pages, with links to the online catalogue entry and full digital coverage on Digitised Manuscripts.

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The Constitution of the Athenians, written on papyrus in Egypt c. 100 CE (Papyrus 131).

Drawing on the rich collections of Greek manuscripts held by the British Library, the website provides succinct introductions to major themes and issues, directed towards a non-specialist audience. The project’s aim is not to present new scholarship, although some of the most exciting developments in recent research are reflected in several articles and videos. We especially hope that the website will be helpful to students, scholars in related fields, and members of the public, in orienting themselves in a subject area that can often appear daunting from the outside.

The articles are organised into five overlapping themes, reflecting some of the most important aspects of Greek manuscripts, classical antiquity, and Byzantine culture: art, religion, scholarship, the Greek world, and the makers of Greek manuscripts. They cover the entire chronological period represented by the British Library’s Greek collections, from classical antiquity down to the early 20th century. Many of the most famous items in the collections, such as the Golden Canon tables, the Theodore Psalter or the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians, are included on the site, but so are many lesser-known volumes that are of major importance in their own way.

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The earliest manuscript of the classical author Lucian, written in Constantinople in the early 10th century (Harley MS 5694, f. 60v).

A number of articles introduce complicated topics to the general reader. For instance, James Freeman surveys the shifting use of paper in Greek manuscripts, while Matthew Nicholls and Georgi Parpulov provide a clear overview of the history of libraries from Classical and Late Antiquity to the Byzantine Middle Ages. Other pieces take on a staggering range of material, to provide a succinct overview of a very broad theme: for instance, Dimitris Krallis’s article on Byzantine historiography, or Aileen Das’s survey of the transmission of Greek philosophy and medicine.

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The Harley Trilingual Psalter contains the text of the Psalms in Greek, Latin and Arabic. Sicily (Palermo?), c. 1230-1250 (Harley MS 5786, f. 158r).

The biblical manuscripts that make up a substantial portion of the British Library’s holdings are well-represented on the website. Kathleen Maxwell shares her expertise in the Library’s illuminated Gospels, and the multifaceted transmission of the Old Testament in Greek is also surveyed. Greek manuscripts did not develop in a vacuum: they were circulated far beyond the limits of Greek-speaking antiquity and the Byantine empire. Peter Tóth presents just some of the examples of multilingualism that can be found in Greek manuscripts, while other articles look at topics such as the tradition of schoolboy compositions in Greek in Elizabethan England.

We will introduce more articles on the new website over the coming weeks, advertising them in a series of blog posts. The project, and indeed the preceding Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, has been generously supported by a range of donors, including the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation, and many others. We are grateful to them and to the many experts who have shared their knowledge on the site. We invite everyone to explore the articles and videos and learn more about the British Library’s unparalleled collection of Greek manuscripts!

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The Golden Canon Tables, created in Constantinople in the 6th or 7th century (Add MS 5111, f. 11r).

@BLMedieval

14 September 2016

Palimpsests: The Art of Medieval Recycling

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The art of recycling — re-using waste materials to reduce consumption of fresh raw materials — may seem alien in a medieval context. Yet when it comes to writing, past peoples were often much more sparing than many of us today.

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Miniature of the Evangelist Luke writing, in a 12th-century Gospel-book,
Add MS 5112, f. 3r

Producing papyrus sheets or parchment volumes was not an easy or cheap endeavour. In order to produce a complete Bible on parchment, the skins of approximately 200 sheep may have been needed. One way to save parchment was to write the words and sentences continuously with no punctuation at all. This might have made reading more difficult and open to misunderstanding, but it definitely saved space.

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Detail of continuous script in the columns of the Codex Sinaiticus, Eastern Mediterranean (Palestine?), 4th century,  Add MS 43725, f. 252r

Another way to save parchment and papyrus was to reuse it. Papyrus scrolls were usually written on one side only, where the fibres were horizontal and more suitable for writing, while the other side with vertical threads was usually left blank. In times of need, however, scribes reused the more inconvenient side of scrolls that they found unimportant or superfluous. The practice of writing tax receipts and payment reminders on the reverse of classical dramas and poems has sometimes saved classical literature which would otherwise have been lost. Examples at the British Library include Papyrus 787 preserving Demosthenes’s works, Papyrus 1182 with Epicurus’s treatise and Papyrus 1191 containing Homer.

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Columns from a speech by Demosthenes, Egypt, 2nd century CE, Papyrus 744 recto with later accounts from the other side of the same papyrus, Egypt, 2nd-3rd century CE, Papyrus 744, verso

Reusing parchment pages was more complicated, since books often had writing on both sides. By taking pages of books that were unused, incomprehensible or perhaps banned, it was possible to scrape or wash off the old writing to achieve a new blank page. It is the outcome of this recycling process that we call a palimpsest (the “re-scratched” page).

Many manuscripts with recycled pages are preserved and it is always intriguing to discover what the old writing contained and why it was destroyed. Deciphering undertexts is not always easy. Sometimes the recyclers did not make a very thorough job and the old writing is so transparent that modern viewers can easily read and identify the recycled pages: examples include the epics of Homer and the geometrical works of the mathematician Euclid of Megara.

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The capital letters of Euclid’s Elements recycled in a 9th-century manuscript containing a Syriac translation of a Greek theological text, Add MS 17211, f. 49v

If the recycling was done meticulously, special techniques are necessary to recover the text. Thanks to the British Library’s multispectral imaging technology, many of the seemingly unreadable undertexts can now be recovered. Recently we managed to discover remnants of at least three manuscripts in one 15th-century Greek liturgical book, including parts of a 9th-century gospelbook, some leaves from a 10th-century service book and two scraps from a 12th-century copy of a Greek commentary on Plato by the 5th-century Proclus.

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Multispectral images of a 15th-century service book showing the capital letters of a 9th-century gospel behind the script, Add MS 36823, f. 17r

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These brownish columns are what remains of a 12th-century copy of Proclus’s Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus recycled in this 15th-century liturgical manuscript:
Add MS 36823, f. 123r

Perhaps the most thrilling find yet is a double-palimpsest from Egypt, a 10th-century manuscript written in Syriac (a Semitic language of the Christian East) on pages that contain a twofold layer of Latin texts. One is a commentary on Donatus’s Latin grammar attributed to Sergius from the 7th century, written above another 5th-century Latin text preserving fragments of the otherwise lost historical work of the 2nd-century Granius Licinianus, whose writing is known only from these recycled pages.

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Cursive Latin handwriting of a 7th-century grammatical treatise under the Syriac translation of John Chrysostom’s homilies, Egypt, 10th century, Add. MS 17212, f. 7v

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Capital letters of the Latin text of the Annals of Granius Licinianus under the 7th-century cursive Latin grammatical text in the pages of the 10th-century Syriac manuscript of John Chrysostom’s homilies, Add MS 17212, f. 5r

How these precious fragments ended up in Egypt and why were they recycled to accommodate Syriac translations of Greek religious texts are questions that are very hard to answer. Sebastian Brock, one of the foremost experts on Syriac manuscripts and literature, will try to crack the puzzle in his upcoming lecture at the British Library’s conference on Greek manuscripts. You can book your place to hear the end of the story here.

Peter Toth

@BLMedieval