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31 posts categorized "Classics"

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

30 June 2016

Greek Manuscripts in the British Library: Conference and Public Lecture in September

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To mark the completion of the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the launch of the Greek Manuscripts Online web resource, the British Library is hosting a one-day conference devoted to Greek Manuscripts on 19 September, 2016. Confirmed participants include Sebastian Brock (Oxford), Charalambos Dendrinos (Royal Holloway), Elizabeth Jeffreys (Oxford), Charlotte Roueché (King’s College London), Maria Georgopoulou (Gennadius Library, Athens) and Giorgi Parpulov (Plovdiv, Bulgaria). Speakers will discuss a variety of topics related to the Library’s digitised Greek collections, such as Greek-Syriac palimpsests, Byzantine illuminated manuscripts, Greek written culture and the digital humanities and the cultural interactions between Greece and Britain.

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Page from the Theodore Psalter, Constantinople, February 1066, Add MS 19352, f. 36r

The conference will be accompanied by an evening lecture by Michael Wood on ‘The Wisdom of the Greeks’. Michael will be looking at how the legacy of Greece and Byzantium in science, religion and literature was transmitted to the Latin West. Fascinating stories about texts and ideas, scribes and scholars will come to life in the course of this illustrated talk that will include Anglo-Saxon kings, Crusader knights and Renaissance humanists - and even a well-known Elizabethan dramatist!

Please book your place in advance and register online at http://www.bl.uk/events/greek-manuscripts-in-the-british-library-day-ticket . The full programme can be found here:  Download British Library Greek Conference Schedule.

~Peter Toth

03 December 2015

Postgraduate Open Day on our Pre-1600 Collections

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Booking has opened for the British Library’s first open day dedicated to postgraduates working on our pre-1600 western heritage collections. The open day will be held on Monday 1st February 2016 and is aimed at first year PhD students who are new to the Library. You can reserve a place on our website now at http://www.bl.uk/events/pre-1600-collections.

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Papyrus deed of sale of a slave boy (P. Lond. I 229), with original seals, Syria, 24 May 166, Papyrus 229

The open day will introduce our very wide ranging manuscript and early printed collections to students working on history, literature, the history of art, religion, and the history of science and medicine. The day will help students to understand the practicalities of using our collections in their research and to find out about our catalogues and other online resources. In the afternoon there will be an opportunity to meet several curators who work with pre-1600 manuscripts and printed books, and to have a look at some collection items. There will also be sessions led by reading room staff and by one of the Library’s digital curators.

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Map of the known world, from the Map Psalter, England, 1262-1300, Add Ms 28681, f. 9r

The pre-1600 day is part of an annual series of open days covering different Library collections. The other open days available in 2016 are:

Asian & African Collections – 18 January 2016
News & Media – 25 January 2016 
Music – 05 February 2016
Social Sciences – 12 February 2016
17th & 18th Century Collections – 19 February 2016
19th Century Collections – 22 February 2016
20th & 21st Century Collections – 26 February 2016

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Page of music from Magister Sampson, Benedictus de Opitiis and others, Motets, Antwerp, 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 4r

To make the most of the day, you may wish to register for a free Reader Pass in advance if you don’t already have one. Each open day costs £5 and includes lunch and refreshments. Booking in advance is essential as a limited number of places is available. We are looking forward to meeting lots of new postgraduate students on 1st February.

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Prologue with woodcut from 2nd edition of Caxton's Chaucer, G.11586, f. 3v

-   Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

24 November 2015

Beware the Sybil's Prophecy!

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The Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, a medieval best-seller, surviving in over 100 manuscripts from the 11th to the 16th century, predicts, among other things, the reign of evil despots, the return of the Antichrist and the sun turning to blood.

This, and our earlier two posts on Ward’s Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts, focus on the tales that Ward classified as ‘CLASSICAL ROMANCES’. He lists 11 manuscripts of the Sibyl’s prophecy in our collections, but there are 15 in all.

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Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, Book of Hours, use of Rome, Master of James IV of Scotland, Bruges or Ghent, circa 1510, Add MS 35313, f. 90r

The Text

The Tenth or Tiburtine Sibyl was a pagan prophetess perhaps of Etruscan origin. To quote Lactantus in his general account of the ten sibyls in the introduction, ‘The Tiburtine Sibyl, by name Albunea, is worshiped at Tibur as a goddess, near the banks of the Anio in which stream her image is said to have been found, holding a book in her hand’. (Tibur is the modern Tivoli: at the Villa d'Este, built in the 16th century, murals depict her prophesying the birth of Christ to the classical world.)

The work interprets the Sibyl’s dream in which she foresees the downfall and apocalyptic end of the world; 9 suns appear in the sky, each one more ugly and bloodstained than the last, representing the 9 generations of mankind and ending with Judgment Day. The original Greek version dates from the end of the 4th century and the earliest surviving manuscript in Latin is dated 1047 (Madrid, Escorial ms &.1.3). There are a small number of vernacular manuscripts, including an Anglo-Norman version by Philippe de Thaon (BnF fr. 25407). The Tiburtine Sibyl is often depicted with Emperor Augustus, who asks her if he should be worshipped as a god. This image from the margins of a Dutch prayerbook is an example:

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Harley MS 2943, ff. 17v-18r E093635
Augustus kneeling, with the Tiburtine Sibyl prophesying, in the lower right border (f. 18r); a miniature of the Annunciation; historiated initial 'H'(ere) with Virgin and Child shown as the woman of the Apocalypse; John on Patmos in the border (f. 17v), at the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, Netherlands, N. (Haarlem? or Beverwijk?), 1486, Harley MS 2943, ff. 17v - 18r.

Early English transmission of the prophecy is often linked to the larger monastic houses such as Rochester and Canterbury, where political prophecies such as the Prophecies of Merlin were popular works. Included in the text is a list of the succession of Roman emperors, and medieval scribes added to this and inserted significant political events from their own times into the prophecy. It is a short text of 3 or 4 folios, usually found in collections of chronicles and historical material, sometimes incorporated into other historical works, including those of Godfrey of Viterbo (12th century) and Matthew Paris (13th century). The emphasis on role of the emperors and kings in the history of the world made this an ideal tool of political propaganda and this may have accounted for its popularity.

The Latin text was often attributed to Bede, and was first printed among his works in Basel in 1563, and later among the works of Pseudo-Bede in Migne’s Patrologia Latina (PL 90, 1181B-1186C).

The Manuscripts

Ward lists the following manuscripts:

Royal MS 15 A XXII from Rochester Cathedral Priory and Cotton MS Vespasian B XXV from Christ Church, Canterbury, for which the former was the exemplar, are the earliest manuscripts in our collections, copied in the first quarter of the 12th century. Both also contain Solinus Collectanea and Dares Phrygius Historia Troianorum:

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Initial 'P'(eleus) at the beginning of the introductory epistle of Dares Phrygius, England, S.E. (Rochester) 1st quarter of the 12th century, Royal MS 15 A XXII, f. 73v

Royal MS 15 B XI (12/13C), closely related to the Royal and Cotton manuscripts above, and is again from Rochester Cathedral Priory.

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Zoomorphic initial 'Q'(uo) with outline drawing of a dragon and foliate decoration from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which follow the Prophecy in this manuscript, England, S.E., 4th quarter of the 12th century or 1st quarter of the 13th century, Royal MS 15 B XI, f. 70v

Royal MS 13 A XIV, an Irish volume from the late 13th or early 14th century that formerly belonged to the Dominican Friary at Limerick and contains a version of the Topographia Hibernica of Giraldus Cambrensis.

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Puzzle initial 'O'(mnibus), at the beginning of the Historia Mongalorum, Ireland, last quarter of the 13th century, or 1st quarter of the 14th century Royal MS 13 A XIV, f. 198r

Arundel MS 326: This historical and theological miscellany includes the annals of Abingdon and the Historia Regum Britanniae and is thought to be from Abingdon Abbey. For some reason Ward describes this manuscript in a later section dealing with the English chronicles, but does not include it in the list for the present text.

Egerton MS 810, from Germany in the late 12th or early 13th century and includes Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne

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Text page with a decorated initial from the beginning of the Life of Charlemagne, Germany, W. 1125-1174, Egerton MS 810, f. 94r.

Cotton MS Titus D III, a 13th-century copy in a collection with the Pantheon of Godfrey of Viterbo and Apollonius of Tyre.

Cotton MS Claudius B VII, a 13th-century Litchfield manuscript that again includes Dares Phrygius, along with Turpin’s Chronicle and the Prophecies of Merlin.

Cotton MS Vespasian E IV, a 13th-century collection of chronicles and genealogies including Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britannie

Cotton MS Caligula A X, an early 14th century manuscript containing a Chronicle of Worcester Cathedral Priory up to 1377 and other material relating to Worcester .

Cotton MS Domitian A XIII, a composite manuscript in which a version of the prophecy from the 13th century (ff. 104-107) is bound with a later 14th century copy (ff. 132v-134v).

Manuscripts not in Ward’s catalogue:

In her study, The Sibyl and Her Scribe, Anke Holdenried lists further copies of the text, now in the British Library, that were either not known to Ward or were acquired after his catalogue was published:

Add MS 50003

Add MS 50003_f. 220v
The tripartite prologue to the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl, with a historiated initial ‘I’(heronimus) at the beginning, from the Poncii Bible, Spain, Catalonia (Vich?), 1273, Additional MS 50003, f. 220v

This manuscript was one of seven manuscripts bequeathed to the British Museum by Charles William Dyson Perrins, collector and bibliophile (1914-1958). An illuminated Bible from Spain, copied by Johannes Poncii, canon of Vich in Catalonia in 1273, it provides one of the most fascinating contexts for the text and images of the Tiburtine Sibyl. The prophecy has been inserted into the biblical text in between the Book of Psalms and the Book of Proverbs.

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Historiated initial ‘F’(uit) depicting the Tiburtine Sibyl, with the words ‘Decima tiburtina Grece’ in the lines above, from the Poncii Bible, Spain, Catalonia (Vich?), 1273, Additional MS 50003, f. 221r.

Add MS 38665

In this early 15th-century collection, including Aesop’s fables, in the hand of John Streech, canon of the Augustinian Priory of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, the prophecy follows an excerpt of Honorius Augustodunensis’ Ymago Mundi.

Sloane MS 156, a 15th-century miscellany and Sloane MS 289, a direct copy from Arundel MS 326.

Other images of the Sibyl

The collections of chronicles and prophecies in which the Prophecy of the Tenth Sibyl is often found tended to be for practical use and therefore are not lavishly illustrated, but images of Tiburtina and her fellow sibyls appear in other contexts where their prophecies are alluded to.

This is an opportunity to display an image from the fabulous Harley MS 4431, produced by Christine de Pizan for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (b. 1371, d. 1435) and illuminated by two of the leading Parisian artists of the early 15th century. Included in this collection of Christine’s works is L'Épître Othéa (The Epistle of Othea to Hector), in which the goddess teaches Hector the art of chivalry, providing examples from characters in mythology, including the Tiburtine Sibyl.

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Miniature of the Tiburtine Sibyl revealing to Caesar Augustus a vision of the Virgin and Child, in 'L'Épître Othéa', France (Paris), 1410-1440, Harley MS 4431, f. 141r.

Finally, a search for ‘sibyl’ in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts gives a number of results, including this French image of the Erithrean Sibyl, who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Erythrae in Ionia. It is from a copy of a French translation of Boccaccio’s work, Le livre de femmes nobles et renomées:

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Detail of a miniature of the Erithrean Sibyl writing, with a partial border and a foliate initial 'E'(rithire), at the beginning of chapter XXI, France, N. (Rouen), c. 1440, Royal MS 16 G V, f. 23.

Footnote: The Tiburtine Sibyl makes an appearance in the National Gallery’s current Botticini exhibition, ‘Visions of Paradise’, which we featured in a recent post.  There is an engraving of her, attributed to Baldini, which is compared to the Sibyl represented in Botticini’s painting. The catalogue points to the distinctive headdress of the Sibyls in both images, not dissimilar from the one in our image from a Flemish Book of Hours, shown above (Harley 2943, f. 1).

Further reading

L. D. Ward , Catalogue of Romances in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum, 3 vols (London: British Museum, 1883-1910), I (1883), pp. 190-95.

Anke Holdenried, The Sibyl and Her Scribes: Manuscripts and Interpretation of the Latin ‘Sibylla Tiburtina c.1050-1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

- Chantry Westwell

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!

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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.

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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

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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).

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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).

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

17 October 2015

Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts

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The British Library holds an internationally renowned collection of manuscripts relating to the ancient and medieval world. We are currently recruiting for a Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts to join our team, with a special responsibility for Classical, Biblical and Byzantine Manuscripts.

Bear

Papyrus 3053, found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, from the blogpost Exit Pursued by a Bear

Among other responsibilities, the post-holder will be required 

  • to use innovative and traditional ways of interpreting and presenting our collections through online resources and engagement with academic and general users
  • to manage projects relating to ancient and medieval manuscripts
  • to use their specialist knowledge to support the development, management and promotion of our collections

Valla

The signature of the humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla, from the blogpost Livy Among the Humanists

Applicants should have a post-graduate degree, or equivalent, in a relevant subject, experience of research in Classics and /or Byzantine Studies and a personal area of expertise relevant to the collection. Strong knowledge of Ancient Greek and Classical Latin, excellent written and oral communication skills in English, and the ability to promote the collections to a wide range of audiences are essential.

For more information and to apply for this position, please visit www.bl.uk/careers/ 

Closing date 15 November 2015.

Interview Date: 26 November 2015.

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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