Medieval manuscripts blog

77 posts categorized "Greek"

21 November 2015

New to the Treasures Gallery

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As frequent visitors to the British Library will know, we regularly make changes to the items displayed to the public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, also known as our Treasures Gallery.  We are pleased to announce that the Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts section has placed a number of new manuscripts on display.  Most of these manuscripts are fully digitised and can be found online at Digitised Manuscripts, so if you’re not able to make it to the Gallery here in London, there’ s no need for you to miss out!

Painting of Mont Saint Michel burning,
from 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel', France (Normandy), 1375-1400, Add MS 10289, f. 45v

The ‘Literature’ section sees the addition of Add MS 10289, 'Li Romanz du Mont Saint-Michel' (the Romance of Mont Saint-Michel), a late 13th century miscellany of romances, moralistic and religious texts, and medical recipes written in Anglo-Norman.   The folio displayed shows the burning of the monastery in the year 922; much more about this fabulous manuscript can be found in our post The Romance of Mont Saint-Michel.

Miniature of Geoffrey Chaucer, from Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, England (London or Westminster), c. 1411 – c. 1420, Harley MS 4866, f. 88r

Also in this section is one of the earliest copies of Thomas Hoccleve’s The Regiment of Princes, which was created c. 1411 – c. 1420, possibly under the supervision of Hoccleve himself.  This manuscript (Harley MS 4866) includes the famous portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, holding a rosary and wearing a pen-case on a string around his neck

Miniature of Homer in a landscape listening to his Muse, from a copy of Homer’s Iliad, Italy (Florence), 1466, Harley MS 5600, f. 15v

Three manuscripts featuring the works of classical authors have been added to the ‘Art of the Book’ section.  A 15th century Greek manuscript, copied in Florence in 1466 by Ioannes Rhosos of Crete, contains a gorgeous miniature of Homer surrounded by Muses, in a typical Florentine style (Harley MS 5600).  This Homer is joined by the works of two more Roman authors who were also hugely popular in Renaissance Italy: a late 15th century copy of the works of Cicero (Burney MS 157), and a Virgil copied in Rome between 1483 and 1485 (Kings MS 24).

Drawing of a ‘stout woman’ from a notebook by Albrecht
Dürer, Germany, c. 1500, Add MS 5231, f. 5r

Manuscripts in another section contain material from two of the great artists of the Renaissance: Albrecht Dürer and Michaelangelo.  Dürer’s interest in anatomy are reflected in four sketchbooks now owned by the British Library, one of which includes a sketch of a ‘stout woman’ accompanied by detailed notes on how to correctly construct a human figure (Add MS 5231).  Alongside Dürer’s volume is one composed of a series of letters exchanged by Michaelangelo Buonarroti and his family.  On display is a letter Michaelangelo wrote to his nephew from Rome in 1550, offering some genial advice on the best way to select a wife (Add MS 23142).

Text page with musical neumes, Spain (Silos), c. 1050, Add MS 30845, f. 13r

We have also updated the ‘Early Music’ section with two of our best-known musical manuscripts.  Dating from c. 1050, Add MS 30845 is a liturgical manuscript with musical notation, created in the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in northern Spain.  This notation consists of graphic signs that indicate the direction of the melody; as the pitch is lacking, however, the original melody is now impossible to recover.  Accompanying the Silos manuscript is one containing perhaps the most famous piece of English secular medieval music, ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, which is known only from this manuscript. 

Page with ‘Sumer is Icumen in’, from a miscellany, England (Reading Abbey), c. 1260, Harley MS 978, f. 11v

If you’re interested in more information on this wonderful piece of music (from Harley MS 978), please see our post Sumer is Icumen In.  And whether your visit is in person here in St Pancras, or virtual amongst our digitised manuscripts, we hope you enjoy yourselves!

-  Sarah J Biggs

29 October 2015

Codex Sinaiticus: Both British Library Volumes On Display in London

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The two volumes of Codex Sinaiticus held in the British Library's collections are together one of its greatest treasures. Produced around the middle of the 4th century, Codex Sinaiticus is the earliest manuscript of the complete New Testament and the best witness for some books of the Old Testament. The text of both volumes was heavily annotated by a series of early correctors, and the significance of Codex Sinaiticus for the reconstruction of the text of the Bible, the history of the Bible and the history of western book-making is immense.


The New Testament volume of Codex Sinaiticus open at John, chapter 5

From today, there is a very rare opportunity to see both volumes of Codex Sinaiticus on display in London. One volume of the manuscript is usually exhibited at the British Library and this week the Old Testament volume has been put on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, alongside other major highlights of the collection, including Codex Alexandrinus, the 5th-century manuscript of the Bible in Greek. This gallery is open for 7 days a week in the British Library building at St Pancras.


Codex Sinaiticus, Isaiah 66:12 to Jeremiah 1:7, on display at the British Library from this week (British Library Add MS 43725, f. 68r)

For the next few months, you can also see the New Testament volume of Codex Sinaiticus in London. The Library has loaned the manuscript for the first time to the British Museum for its new exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, which runs from 29 October 2015 until 7 February 2016. As well as Codex Sinaiticus, the Library has loaned eleven other manuscripts to the exhibition, including the papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Thomas, a leaf from the Cotton Genesis and the First Gaster Bible. These loans are part of a major collaboration between the British Library and the British Museum which brings together in the exhibition some of the Library’s most important treasures, key items from the Museum’s own collection and a wide range of loans from other institutions, including a copy of the Qur’an on loan from the Bodleian Library.


Codex Sinaiticus, Luke 3:21-4:18, on display at the British Museum from 29 October 2015 to 7 February 2016 (British Library Add MS 43725, f. 230v)

Codex Sinaiticus originally contained the whole of the Bible in Greek, and is named after the monastery of St Catherine near the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, where it had been preserved until the middle of the 19th century. The principal surviving portion of the Codex is the two volumes, comprising 347 leaves, now held by the British Library. A further 43 leaves are kept at the University Library in Leipzig, parts of 6 leaves are held at the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, and further portions remain at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

Cotton Otho B VI, f. 26v

A leaf of the Cotton Genesis, on loan from the British Library to the British Museum (British Library Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v)

On 9 March 2005, representatives of the four institutions holding parts of Codex Sinaiticus signed a partnership agreement for the conservation, photography, transcription and publication online of all surviving pages and fragments of the Codex. The principal outputs of the project were published online in full on the Codex Sinaiticus website in July 2009. This website includes a record of the detailed new conservation work undertaken, new photography of the whole manuscript and a full electronic transcription of the text of the manuscript in which every word in each image is linked to the corresponding word in the transcription. The work on the transcription was led by Professor David Parker at the University of Birmingham and was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Other aspects of the project were generously funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the A. G. Leventis Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and a number of other donors.


Detail showing repaired split on Add MS 43725, f. 8r, 1 Chronicles, chapter 9

As part of the collaboration between the British Library, Leipzig University Library, the National Library of Russia and Saint Catherine’s Monastery, all four partners also worked together to undertake research into the history of the Codex and to commission an objective historical narrative based on the results of the research. That account was published on the Codex Sinaiticus website in 2009.

Other outputs of the Codex Sinaiticus Project include a new book by David Parker, Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (London, 2010), a full printed facsimile of the manuscript published in 2011, and the papers from the international conference held by the project in 2009, Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, ed. Scot McKendrick et al. (London, 2015). 

The volumes of Codex Sinaiticus held at the British Library (Add MS 43725) are also available on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

We hope that as many people as possible will visit the British Museum and the British Library this autumn to experience these great manuscript treasures.

Claire Breay
Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts


20 August 2015

The Constitution of the Athenians and the History of Athenian Democracy

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Building the Ancient City: Athens and Rome begins tonight on BBC2. The first episode includes footage and discussion of the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131).

While a great many important texts have survived from antiquity, many others have been lost to us. These we know only from sporadic quotations and mentions in extant works, leaving us to wonder what they might have been able to teach us about the ancient world.

For many centuries, Aristotle’s Constitutions, and in particular the Constitution of the Athenians, was numbered amongst the most important of these. According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle and his school collected the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states and wrote commentaries on each of them. Of these 158 commentaries, 68 are mentioned by name in other sources, clearly marking the Constitutions as a significant work in antiquity. In addition, the Constitution of the Athenians itself was known from 90 separate quotations, setting it apart from the others in terms of its importance to philosophers, historians, and other scholars in antiquity. Aristotle himself gave us evidence for the existence of the Constitutions, stating at the end of his Nicomachean Ethics that his Politics would be based in part on the “collected constitutions”.

The beginning of the surviving portion of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 1v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

In light of this, the discovery of nearly the whole text of the Constitution of the Athenians at the end of the nineteenth century was monumental. In 1879, two leaves of a papyrus codex, dating from the fourth century, were acquired by the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. These contain fragments of the Constitution of the Athenians with marginalia. Then, in 1889, three papyrus rolls, dating from the late first century, were found in Egypt by E. A. Wallis Budge, an assistant at the British Museum. These were sent back to London and accessioned as Papyrus 131. A fourth roll followed in 1890, but unfortunately, this was far more damaged than the other three. Frederic Kenyon, later Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, but then a young assistant in the Department of Manuscripts, was able to identify the text of the papyrus as the Constitution of the Athenians. Unfortunately, the papyrus lacks the opening sections of the work, which are believed to have dealt with legendary figures such as Ion and Theseus. Kenyon’s first edition was published in 1891, along with an English translation.

The second surviving roll of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 3v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

The importance of this text for our understanding of the development, nature, and challenges of Athenian democracy cannot be overstated, and it has remained an object of scholarly study since its discovery. It recounts the history of Athenian legal and political institutions down to 403 BC and analyses their form and quality in the 330’s and 320’s – it should be noted that it does not declare or create these institutions, as a modern reader may imagine given the title ‘Constitution.’ Instead, along with other Classical texts, particular those by Herodotus, Xenophon (who also has a Constitution of the Athenians credited to his name), and Thucydides, the work gives us a clearer picture of Athenian history and government.

The fragmentary fourth roll containing the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 5v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

It should be noted that since the work’s publication, its attribution to Aristotle himself has been debated – not least because the style of the work is quite different from that found elsewhere in Aristotle. The fact that the work is in a different genre from the rest of Aristotle’s works may, however, be enough to explain the stylistic variance. Certainly, the ancient sources unanimously credit the work to him. Whether written by Aristotle himself or not, the text remains a significant primary source for Classical Athens, and a treasured piece of cultural history.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

19 August 2015

Handlist of Greek Manuscripts in the British Library

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The completion of the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project is as good a time as any to release to this world a handy spreadsheet containing details of the Greek manuscripts held by the British Library. The spreadsheet includes a brief description of the content and links to Digitised Manuscripts and to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts where the material has been digitised; it also notes which printed catalogue (Richard’s Inventaire or the 1999 Summary Catalogue) describes the item. Almost all the items listed are described in full on the main British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Items in bold in the handlist are cared for by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections. Finally, links are included to the relevant entry on Pinakes, the important database for Greek manuscripts run by the IRHT in Paris.

- Cillian O'Hogan

The most recent manuscript to be acquired by the British Library, Add MS 82957, f 1r. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 2nd half of the 11th century

06 August 2015

Greek and Latin papyri acquired since 1956

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Papyrus 3053. Drawing of a bear in the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus among documents dating from the third century.

Details of newly-acquired papyri were historically recorded in the Catalogue of Additions published at periodic intervals over the years. The existing Catalogue of Additions series only includes papyri acquired before 1956. It had been intended to detail the later acquisitions in a future volume of the Catalogue of Additions, but as these are no longer published, the papyri (Papyrus 2923-3136, and Egerton Papyrus 37) have not been as widely known as they perhaps might be. In an effort to bring them to greater attention, we have compiled a short Register of Papyri Acquired since 1956, which can be downloaded here as an Excel file. This gives details of British Library inventory number, details of publication where that is known, a Trismegistos number if extant, notes of any other papyri that originally formed part of the same document or book, source and date of acqusition, and a brief description of contents. All items are in Greek unless noted otherwise: this list does not include any papyri in other languages that may have been acquired by Asian and African Collections. Demotic and hieroglyphic papyri are cared for by the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum.

Only one item has been digitised, Papyrus 3053 (P. Oxy. 2470, pictured above), but all these papyri would be included in any future digitisation project.

The bulk of the acquisitions are known to scholars, forming a large portion of the Hibeh Papyri (Papyrus 2943-3035), Volume 27 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Papyrus 3036-3063), and many of the Michaelides papyri (Papyrus 3100-3132), though not all of the latter have been edited. In addition, other acquisitions, or items incorporated from “limbo” or transferred from other departments in the British Museum or British Library, are mostly fragmentary, but would certainly benefit from further study.

We are not aware of any current research being carried out on the items in this list, but always welcome details of editions, and offprints, where possible, which can be sent in the first instance to the Manuscripts and Maps Reference Team.

- Cillian O’Hogan

21 July 2015

Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript

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We are delighted to announce the publication of a new book, Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage at the British Library), David Parker (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham), Amy Myshrall (Research Fellow at the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham) and Cillian O’Hogan (Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at the British Library).


Codex Sinaiticus was produced in the middle of the fourth century, and is one of the two oldest Christian Bibles to survive largely intact from antiquity (the other being Codex Vaticanus in Rome). It is also the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence. Preserved for many centuries at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, it is now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia.

The book consists of the proceedings of a conference held in 2009 to mark the launch of the Codex Sinaiticus website, and its publication marks the culmination of the Codex Sinaiticus Project. It contains twenty-two articles, dealing with all aspects of the manuscript and its history, divided into five sections: Historical Setting, the Septuagint, Early Christian Writings, Modern Histories of Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Sinaiticus Today. Together with the extensive research to be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, the book provides the most up-to-date information available about the manuscript. It includes a general index, an index of Biblical passages, a list of papyri and manuscripts, and numerous high-resolution images of Codex Sinaiticus.

Formally launched at an event at the British Library last night, the book is published by British Library Publishing in association with Hendrickson Publishers. It is available for purchase in the UK now from the British Library Shop, and will be available in the United States from Hendrickson this September.

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

- Cillian O’Hogan

27 June 2015

Art in the margins: the Theodore Psalter

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The psalter, a copy of the Psalms designed for personal or liturgical uses, was an important text in Byzantinum, particularly in monastic life. Among the many copies of this text surviving down to the present day are marginal psalters, which contain illuminations in the margins of the folios. Several important marginal psalters survive, such as the Barberini, Paris, and Bristol Psalters, all of which can be appreciated for their impressive decoration.

Add MS 19532, f 1v. Chrysography (writing in gold).

Add MS 19352, the Theodore Psalter, is perhaps the most richly decorated psalter to survive, with 440 marginal illustrations, and we have just updated the catalogue to include a description of every miniature in the manuscript. Nearly every folio contains illustration, and the title and first initial of every verse are in gold.

Add MS 19352, f 96r. An elaborate orchard scene takes up nearly a third of the page.

These illustrations range widely in their content, as each tries to imagine the most important elements of the Psalm. Specific lines referred to are often linked to the images by means of red or blue lines. The manuscript includes some graphic depictions of God’s wrath:

Add_ms_19352_f011v detail
Add MS 19532, f 11v. Angel pulling out the boastful tongue (Ps 11(12):4).
Add MS 19352, f 21v. Burning of Sodom and the five cities.

It also contains scenes of some of the Bible’s most exciting stories:

Add MS 19532, f 182r. David and Goliath.
Add MS 19352, f 141v. Plagues visited upon Egypt.
Add MS 19352, f 201r. Jonah cast into the sea.

Particularly prominent is King David, reputedly the author of a number of the Psalms, who can be seen praying in various ways. Many of these images underscore the prophetic qualities of the Psalms, and include New Testament figures, particularly Jesus and Mary, along with a passage in which they are prophesied.

Add MS 19352, f 84r. Daniel prophesies on the mount (pink) with the Mother of God at the top and David at the foot.

Other images are used in a liturgical context, and what they depict is not necessarily connected with the Psalm, but connected to a feast or Saint to which that Psalm is significant:

Add MS 19352, f 81v. The Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs. Psalm 65 (66) is read on their feast day.

In addition to the Psalms, the Theodore Psalter contains the Odes, and a twelve-syllable poem on David’s early life. Also among the additional material are a colophon and a prayer for the Psalter's recipient. These make it clear that the manuscript was copied in 1066 by Theodoros of Caesarea, presbyter of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople, for the Abbot Michael.

Add MS 19352, f 208r. Colophon, written in gold.

On Digitised Manuscripts you can see full coverage of this richly decorated manuscript and many others like it.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

16 June 2015

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

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Papyrus 3053, scene from the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, among documents dating from the third century.

A recent addition to Digitised Manuscripts is one of our true hidden treasures: possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library’s collections. Papyrus 3053, also known as P. Oxy. 2470, was found along with a range of third-century documents at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Blank on the verso, the recto contains a vivid fragment of a scene from the arena. The papyrus depicts a bear, caught just on the moment of rising up, or perhaps about to leap, to try to catch the figure whose legs are visible in the top left. The hoop in the top right is perhaps a ring through which the figure is aiming to jump. The red swoosh to the right of the fragment is harder to make any sense of, but it seems to serve the purpose of marking off the acrobatic scene from something else. Perhaps it is supposed to designate the curve of the seating at the amphitheatre? Just above the legs of the acrobat are the feet of some letters, reconstructed as ερσωις, though what exactly that might mean (a name, perhaps?) is unclear.

Detail of text
Papyrus 3053, detail of feet of letters, possibly ερσωις

Such feats of acrobatic dexterity, with the goal of escaping wild beasts, were hugely popular in antiquity, and the papyrus calls to mind the words of the late Latin poet Prudentius (348-c. 405), who notes in his poem the Hamartigenia that “rash figures spring with flying leap over wild beasts and sport amid the risks of death” (inde feras uolucri temeraria corpora saltu | transiliunt mortisque inter discrimina ludunt, Ham. 369-70, trans. Thomson). The prevalence of scenes drawn from the world of Roman spectacle in mosaics and in the few illuminated papyri now extant give further attestation of the popularity of these shows (see, for instance, the famous Antinoopolis Charioteers papyrus , or this fine hunting-scene (perhaps a uenatio?) in a Berlin papyrus. Bears were particularly prized: see, for instance, the many references to the difficulties involved in getting good bears for the games in the letters of the fourth-century senator Symmachus, or the splendid scene depicted by Apuleius in the fourth book of his novel the Metamorphoses.

Papyrus 3053, sewing repairs

What was the original context of this fragment? Clearly visible are the remains of some sewing along two vertical folds, similar to the sort of sewing we often find in papyrus codices. However, the fact that these two folds are so close to each other makes it clear that the image was not spread across two facing pages of a codex. It has been suggested that the sewing was intended to repair tears that resulted from the folds. Did this image form part of a bookroll, then, or was it perhaps inserted into a codex? In the absence of further information, it’s impossible to say.

Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f041r detail
Royal MS 1 D VIII (Codex Alexandrinus) f 41r, detail. Decorated tailpiece at the end of the Gospel of Luke, containing a pomegranate plant and two vines. 5th century.

I mentioned at the beginning that this is possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library. We can perhaps exclude papyri that have simple decorative ink coronides on the grounds that these are not illuminations as we would commonly think of them today. But there remains the fact that establishing a clear date for Papyrus 3053 is tricky: while it was found among documents from the third century, there is no hard evidence for dating it exclusively to that century, and we should allow for the possibility that it is from a later period, possibly even the sixth century. Such a dating would make it a near-contemporary of the Cotton Genesis, generally dated to the fifth or sixth century, and later than Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century), which contains tiny miniatures in the tailpiece (such as the one above). Whatever its date, however, Papyrus 3053 is a rare example of a coloured illustration on papyrus, and a precious glimpse into the world of book decoration in the ancient world.

-          Cillian O’Hogan