THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

14 August 2020

“Collect the fragments – they should not perish!”

The old saying calling for careful preservation of fragments originally comes from the Bible and refers to the collection of the breadcrumbs remaining after the miraculous multiplication of loaves (John 6:12). Renaissance scholars reinterpreted it as a call to search for and rescue remnants of the past, especially of classical literature and scholarship. The saying could equally apply to fragments of ancient manuscripts which, carefully collected and preserved, are still providing new discoveries.

A detail from the Bristol Psalter, featuring a marginal illustration of the miracle of the manna.
Collecting fragments of the heavenly food (mannah) from the Bristol Psalter, Constantinople, 11th century: Add MS 40731, f. 128r (detail)

Written heritage can become fragmented for multiple reasons. Sometimes disasters such as fire and wars devastated collections of books. A well-known and sad case is the 1731 fire in Ashburnham House, near Westminster school, where Robert Cotton’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts was held. Although the efforts of librarians and many others saved a large number of manuscripts from the fire, there are some sorrowful and often-lamented losses. The remarkable 5th-century illuminated copy of the Book of Genesis, for example, which was still complete in Robert Cotton’s time, came out of the fire in a handful of charred fragments.

A burnt fragment from the Cotton Genesis, featuring an illustration of Abraham receiving three angels.
Abraham receiving three angels, fragment of an illuminated copy of the Greek text of the Book of Genesis, known as the Cotton Genesis, Egypt, 5th/6th century: Cotton MS Otho B VI, f. 26v

Apart from such disasters, the most common reasons for the fragmentation of books were age and obsolescence. As decades and centuries passed, books fell out of use. There were new copies of the same text, easier to read and handier to use. Previous copies, often worn, damaged or even unbound, were left on library shelves to disintegrate further.

In exceptional cases librarians did recognise the inherent value in ancient manuscripts and saved and treasured them in various ways. A fragment of a 6th-century copy of Pope Gregory the Great’s homilies on papyrus was found and framed in a beautifully illuminated parchment sheet in the 15th century.

A detail of a mounted papyrus fragment added to a leaf from the Breviary of Margaret of York.
Detail of a papyrus fragment surrounded by a border from the 15th century, Ghent, c. 1480: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r (detail)

Similarly, it was probably a librarian in a monastery on Mount Athos who found these astonishing fragments of a 6th-century Greek gospel-book illuminated with gold. In order to rescue the treasure, he bound them in a later manuscript, which resulted in trimming the originally much larger sheets to the size of the volume. Nevertheless, his actions preserved three remarkable survivals of early Byzantine book illumination.

One of the Golden Canon Tables, written on gold paint, with elaborate floral decoration and a small portrait of a haloed man.
"The Golden Canon Tables", a fragment of a luxury gospel-book in Greek, trimmed and bound in a 12th-century volume, Constantinople, 6th century: Add MS 5111/1, f. 1r

The majority of the forgotten volumes, however, were not this lucky: their sheets were usually reused either for flyleaves or binding supports in later volumes.

Studying and collecting such fragments from manuscript and printed volumes started as early as the 17th century. Flyleaves and pastedowns were often removed from books, mounted on paper sheets and bound together in large volumes to serve as palaeographical specimens to illustrate script and writing in various times and traditions. We have blogged about one of the most famous and prolific producers of such collections, John Bagford (1650-1715) previously.

A fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing evidence of folding and handwritten notes.
Fragment from a 13th-century Greek liturgical manuscript, showing signs of folding and handwritten notes: Add MS 70516, f. 2v.

Cataloguing such collections is a fascinating challenge. One can easily come up with no result and unable to identify the fragmented pieces, but sometimes an unexpected find emerges from the fragmentary sheets. Add MS 70516 was such an endeavour. The volume, which may have been part of the personal collection of the learned librarian of the Harley Collection, Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726), contains 90 fragments in various languages and scripts. The earliest are probably the two thin Greek fragments, foliated as folios 84-85 today, whose characteristic script can be dated to the early 9th century.

A fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, featuring a marginal illustration.
Fragment from a 9th-century copy of the Greek Life of St Pachomius: Add MS 70516, f. 84r.

The fragments are from the lower part of a double-sheet (bifolium) from a lost-9th century manuscript. As shown by their folding marks, they were reused as binding support in an unknown volume. The sheets were previously described as containing remnants of a Greek monastic text. Further research has now confirmed this hypothesis and identified the text as the life of the 4th-century founder of monastic communities, St Pachomius of Egypt.

A detail from the Eadui Psalter, showing an illustration of St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel.
St Pachomius receiving the monastic rule from an angel in the The Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, 1st half of the 11th century-mid 12th century: Arundel MS 155, f. 9v (detail)

Despite his significance as the inventor of monasteries around 323 in Upper Egypt, exact details of the life of St Pachomius are unclear. One of the most important sources, the earliest version of his Greek biography, a text written in rather clumsy and unpolished Greek, came down to us in one single copy, a truncated 11th-century Greek manuscript now in Florence.

A detail from an 11th-century manuscript, featuring the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius.
The only other existing manuscript of the earliest version of St Pachomius’s Greek Life showing the same text (cf. line 5) as the British Library Fragment presented above (cf. line 5 from bottom of the fragment), Apiro, Italy 11th century: Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana Plut. 11.09, f. 170v

Closer inspection has confirmed that the 9th-century fragments contain portions of this particular text – the earliest version of the Greek Life of St Pachomius, hitherto known from only one much later manuscript. What this new find means for the history of the text and how it complements the information about the earliest abbot still awaits exploration, but the identification of the two sheets neatly confirms the old axiom that such “fragments should be collected and not be allowed to perish”.

Peter Toth

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For a detailed presentation, see P. Toth, “Wisdom in Fragments: The Earliest Manuscript of the First Greek Life of St Pachomius”, in Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Thomas Arentzen, Henrik Rydell Johnsén and Andreas Westergren (eds.), Wisdom on the Move: Late Antique Traditions in Multicultural Conversation (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp. 13-34.