THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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43 posts categorized "Ancient"

14 February 2017

Love Me Do: Medieval Love Spells

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Valentine’s Day is all about love — mutual love and shared love. But what if love is unrequited or one-sided? The problem, as always, is not a new one. It was well known in ancient and medieval times alike, but different people had their own ways of dealing with it.

Some people simply believed in persuasion. Some nice words on a bench may break the ice and turn the lover’s heart in the desired direction. 'You can try this with men or women alike', as the caption of the image says.

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Detail from a herbal, Northern Italy (Lombardy), c. 1440, Sloane 4016, f. 44v

If this does not make a break-through, a picnic set up in an entertaining landscape of flowers, trees and a little brook might bring better results.

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Miniature of the duke of true love and his companions entertaining ladies, from the Book of the Queen, c. 1410–1414, France (Paris), Harley 4431, f. 145

You could even include some sport in these outdoor activities and win their hearts in a race. This is how Hippomenes won over Atalanta after beating her in an (actually unfair) running competition. He rolled golden apples in the girl’s way, slowing her down so that he could finally win and get her hand.

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Miniature of Hippomenes racing Atalanta, from Harley 4431, f. 128r

Others had completely different methods and, convinced about the power of their poetry and music, bravely revealed their feelings before their lovers. Orpheus did it in a live performance for Eurydice. It worked, melting the heart of Death himself who gave his dead wife back to him.

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Miniature of Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, from Harley 4431, f. 126v  

Others, probably less skilled in performing arts, preferred to do this in a less direct way and offered luxury editions of their poetry to their loved ones — enclosing their own burning hearts in the volumes.

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Detail from 49 Love Sonnets, Italy (Milan?), c. 1425–1475, King's 322, f. 1r

There were some, however, who did not deter even from violence and took what they wanted by force. They fought wars, battled kings and occupied cities, just like Menelaus did when his beloved Helena escaped from Sparta, starting the ten-year long Trojan War. The British Library does not endorse this approach! 

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Detail from a series of miniatures on the temptations of lovers, from Breviari d'Amour, Southern France (Toulouse), c. 1300-1325, Royal 19 C I, f. 204r

Sometimes, when the above methods have all proven useless, there was one final risky and dangerous method that only a few have ever tried: magic. The British Library houses an excellent collection of ancient love spells and charms from the first three centuries CE. Papyrus 121 (2), one of the largest extant scrolls in the collection, preserves a whole series of uncanny methods of gaining someone’s heart. Column 12 of this extraordinary papyrus, for example, has a special recipe that proved useful enough to be recorded and come down to us in the 21st century. It reads as follows:

Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of a demon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a hot bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words 'attract to me XY, whom XY bore, on this very day from this very hour, with a soul and a heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately.' The picture should be as depicted below.

Papyrus 121
Detail of a love spell, from a collection of magical spells and charms, Egypt, 3rd century, Papyrus 121 (2)

Unfortunately the image to be used in the process was not copied in the papyrus, but other parts of the same document preserve similar images of demons with names written around them that can help us imagine what is needed here.

Papyrus 121 a

Papyrus 121 b

There is also a special charm to be used in the process that is supposed to guarantee its success but we decided not to replicate it here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

13 January 2017

New PhD Placements: Greek Papyri in the British Library

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The British Library is offering a PhD placement opportunity for a student working on Greek papyri. This three-month placement will allow someone studying various aspects of Greek literature, papyrology, Late Antique history and religion to have first-hand experience with the ancient sources preserved in one of the world’s most renowned collections of papyri.

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Fragments from a papyrus scroll containing Sophocles’ play ‘The Trackers’ (Ichneutae), 2nd half of the 2nd century, Egypt (Papyrus 2068)

The British Library houses one of the most important collections of Greek papyri in the world, comprising unique witnesses of Greek classical literature, early biblical and Christian fragments and a large corpus of Greek documentary papyri. This collection of more than 3000 Greek papyri will now be digitised and then published online with new catalogue entries over the next few years. The PhD placement student will contribute towards the cataloguing associated with this digitisation project, enabling the digitised images to be described and published in the Library’s online catalogue and viewer. The placement student will also contribute to the Medieval Manuscripts Blog and Twitter feed and to Library events in order to promote the papyrus collection and its international importance for the study of Antiquity.

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The Bear Papyrus, Fragment of an illuminated papyrus, Egypt, 3rd–6th century (Papyrus 3053)

In addition to the fascinating challenges of dealing with world-famous treasures (such as Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians or the Egerton Gospel) or hitherto unpublished fragments, the placement student will get an insight into the daily life of the British Library’s collection. He or she will assist in the selection and delivery of the material, liaising with colleagues in the Library’s conservation and imaging studios, and checking image quality.

View a full placement profile.

Papyrus 177

Fragment from the Anonymus Londiniensis Papyrus, one of the most important medical papyri surviving from Antiquity, Egypt, 1st century (Papyrus 137)

Funding

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current PhD researchers as part of the Library’s PhD placement scheme. To apply, applicants need to have the support of their PhD supervisor and their department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager). The British Library PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Students applying for a placement at the Library are expected to consult their HEI or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to HEIs that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placement opportunities being offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages.

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact Research.Development@bl.uk

 

12 December 2016

Explore our Greek Manuscripts Online

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The British Library has now digitised and published online more than 900 Greek manuscripts. Alongside the digital collections of the Bibliotheca Vaticana and the Laurenziana in Florence, our online holding is one of the largest such repositories in the world. Available are high resolution colour images of each manuscript, including flyleaves and bindings, with an up-to-date description of its content and codicological features, and an extensive bibliography.

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Embossed silver and gold plate, depicting Chirst flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists, from the binding of a 13th-century Gospel book: Add MS 37007

The British Library's online collections of Greek manuscripts range from precious early manuscripts of Classical literature and science to Syriac-Greek palimpsests to the most precious monuments of Byzantine book illustrations and18th-century Greek translations of Moliere. This diverse content can now be explored online in three different ways.

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Depiction of the call of David to be a King by Samuel, in the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, 1066: Add MS 19352, f. 27v

Using the Library's Explore the Archives and Manuscripts, you can search for any names, places and keywords — including authors, titles, scribes and owners — in the descriptions of hundreds of Greek manuscripts. Once an item has been identified, a link (“I want this”) enables the user to order the original manuscript to the Reading Room in London or to view its full digital version online.

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Another way to explore our Greek manuscripts is via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, which is also searchable by using various keywords. After identifying the chosen manuscript, you can immediately start browsing the images of its pages, which once would only have been accessible to scholars visiting the Library in person.

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A third way to explore our digitised Greek manuscripts is by using the Library’s new Greek Manuscripts website, which offers a free guided tour throughout the collections. Let our experts guide you through their richly illustrated introductions to themes such as Art, Religion and Scholarship.

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The so-called Anonymus Londiniensis papyrus, dating from the 1st century CE, contains a selection of ancient medical texts and is the most important medical papyrus to survive from antiquity: Papyrus 137

Most importantly, for those who would like to know which Greek manuscripts have been digitised at the British Library, a comprehensive list with hyperlinks is available here: Download Digitised Greek manuscripts in the British Library

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

02 December 2016

Fantastic Beasts at the British Library

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You may have noticed that a certain film is currently wowing audiences worldwide. Fantastic Beasts And Where to Find Them is the first instalment in a new movie franchise written by J. K. Rowling, and takes its inspiration from her book of the same name. But did you know that many of the beasts featured in the film and the book have their origins in Antiquity and the Middle Ages?

In 2014, our Medieval Manuscripts Blog examined some of the creatures found in medieval bestiaries. A typical medieval bestiary contains descriptions of a variety of animals, often accompanied by elaborate illustrations. Many of these animals are familiar to modern readers, including dogs, catselephants and Bad News Birds (better known as owls). Bestiaries also contain a host of more exotic beasts such as the amphivena, manticore and the basilisk, which were an important part of the medieval imagination. Here are some of these fantastic beasts, illustrated with images from manuscripts at the British Library.

Basilisk

Detail of a basilisk wearing a crown, Harley MS 4751 f. 59r.

What makes a beast a 'beast'?

The word ‘bestiary’ derives from the Latin bestia which translates as 'beast' or 'animal'. In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, a reference work which functioned much like a modern encyclopaedia. In a chapter entitled De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’), Isidore defined a ‘beast’ as an animal which ferociously attacked either with its mouth or claws. Beasts were characteristically wild, enjoyed natural freedom and were driven by their own desires.

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The opening words of De Bestiis (‘On Beasts’) in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: Harley MS 3941, f. 153r.

Centaur

Centaurs, half-human and half-horse figures, were frequently depicted in medieval bestiaries. This image of a centaur occurs alongside lions, tigers and hedgehogs in an early 13th-century bestiary. Centaurs held a prominent place in popular folklore, from classical Greek texts, medieval bestiaries and into the modern imagination.

Centaur

Miniature of a centaur holding a snake: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 8v.

Phoenix

Another fantastic beast found in medieval bestiaries is the phoenix. Classical authors described how, when the phoenix reached a certain age, it would build a pyre for itself and be consumed by the flames, in order to rise again from the ashes. These stories were retold by medieval authors who used the phoenix as an allegory for the death and resurrection of Christ, and the promise of eternal life. The image below depicts one phoenix gathering leaves and another phoenix in flame upon a pyre.

Phoenix

Miniature of two phoenixes: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 49v. 

Harley MS 4751

A phoenix rising from the ashes: Harley MS 4751, f. 45r.

Unicorn

Unicorns were another popular animal in the medieval imagination and are often described in bestiaries and other narrative texts. They are frequently said to be too strong and swift for a hunter to catch, unless a maiden was placed in its path. Upon seeing the maiden, the unicorn would place its head in her lap and fall asleep, giving the hunter the chance he needed. This tale is depicted in the image below, found in a 13th-century bestiary.

Unicorn

Miniature of a knight spearing a unicorn, which has placed its head in a virgin's lap: Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 10v.

Dragon

Surely one of the most fantastic beasts is the dragon. In the medieval imagination, dragons are characterised by their lizard-like body shape covered in scales, decorated with horns, spikes and wings, and possessing the ability to breathe fire.

Dragon

A green snake and a red dragon: Harley MS 3244, f. 59r.

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A dragon, a snake and a plant identified as 'dragontea' or 'serpentaria', in a 15th-century Italian herbal: Sloane MS 4016, f. 38r.

Basilisk

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry famously encounters a basilisk. The basilisk was renowned for killing people with a single stare. If Harry had done his homework properly (who ever does?), he would have known that one approved way of overcoming a basilisk — according to Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79) — was to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Weasel odour was reputedly fatal to the basilisk, although the poor weasel would also die in the struggle.

Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

Merpeople

Another frequently occurring beast is the mermaid or merman. Merpeople were characterised by their human torso and tail of a fish, and were associated with perilous events such as floods, storms and shipwrecks. Merpeople were also often depicted with a mirror and a comb, accessories which demonstrated their beauty and vanity.

Mermaid
Detail of a mermaid with a mirror and comb and a traveller being bitten by a dog: Additional MS 42130, f. 70v.

Wodewose

Another anthropomorphised beast often found in medieval manuscripts is the mighty wodewose, a mythical forest-dwelling wildman. Those wishing for a more detailed account of the common characteristics of this wild beast should consult our own field guide to wodewoses.

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A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

We are delighted to announce that, next autumn, the British Library will be staging a major exhibition devoted to the Harry Potter novels of J. K. Rowling. Harry Potter: A History of Magic will run from 20 October 2017 until 28 February 2018, and is curated by a team led by medieval manuscripts curator Julian Harrison: here is his article The Magic of the British Library. We love the fact that many of the fantastic beasts found in the Harry Potter books were inspired by their classical and medieval ancestors; and we hope that they also fascinate the readers of our blog!

Becky Lawton and Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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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.)

Harley 2767 f. 1
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.

Papyrus 137
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