Medieval manuscripts blog

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12 February 2014

A Papyrus Puzzle and Some Purple Parchment

Among the many treasures in the Cotton collection of manuscripts, the contents of Cotton MS Titus C XV (new to Digitised Manuscripts) are particularly intriguing.  Consisting now of five folios, drawn from three different manuscripts, Cotton MS Titus C XV is good evidence of Sir Robert Cotton’s habits of collection and dismemberment.  Folios 2-5 are four leaves of the so-called Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, a copy of the Four Gospels in Greek written on purple parchment in the sixth century (possibly at Antioch).  This manuscript, dismembered in the high Byzantine era, is now scattered across the world (the bulk of the leaves being in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg, hence the manuscript’s name).

Fragment of the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus,  6th century, Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 4v

Perhaps even more intriguing is the first folio.  Mounted on a blank sheet of parchment is a border cut from the Breviary of Margaret of York, a 15th-century manuscript written in Ghent.  And inside the border is a small scrap of papyrus (125 x 60 mm), dating from the late 6th or early 7th century:

Detail of a papyrus fragment surrounded by a border from the Breviary of Margaret of York, Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

This may well be the first papyrus to enter the British Museum, given that the Cotton library formed one of the foundation collections of the Museum when it was established in 1753. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it was not until 2000 that this fragment was edited and published, by Robert Babcock, in an article in Scriptorium (54.2, pp. 280-88).  He identified it as a fragment from a papyrus codex of Pope Gregory the Great’s Forty Homiles on the Gospels.  Given the date suggested by the hand, it is very likely that this codex was copied in Gregory’s own lifetime.  The hand also suggests that the codex was written in France or Italy, raising the tantalising possibility that Gregory himself may have been responsible for its commissioning.

Detail of the papyrus fragment, Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

How did the papyrus end up in Cotton’s collection?  There are no records that might help us, here, unfortunately, but Babcock argues that it is most likely that the papyrus was already in England when Cotton acquired it – and if so, it may well have been in England for centuries.  At this point we are into the realm of educated guesswork and speculation.  But it is not impossible that the codex could have come over with early missionaries sent to England by Gregory.  It could even be the case that it was an early copy of the Homilies (completed in 592-3) brought over by Augustine of Canterbury when he arrived in Kent in 597.  But if nothing else, we have here the earliest attestation for Gregory’s Homilies on the Gospels, and a fascinating story about a very unusual papyrus.

-  Cillian O’Hogan

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