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Lambeth's Greek manuscript catalogue revealed

26 February 2016


Treasure trove: one of the palimpsest leaves in MS1175

Treasure trove: one of the palimpsest leaves in MS1175

AN OLD TESTAMENT manuscript, ancient marginalia, and an erased text that dates back to the late ninth century are among the treasures discovered in the Greek Manuscript Collection at Lambeth Palace Library, now that it has been fully catalogued by scholars for the first time.

The Collection consists of 55 Greek codices, dated between the tenth and 17th centuries, which have been housed in Lambeth Palace Library since its foundation in 1610.

The new descriptive catalogue has been produced by scholars of the Hellenic Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London, in partnership with the library, and will be available for the public to download in PDF format from next week.

Dr Christopher Wright, who led the work with Maria Argyrou, said that most of the manuscripts were produced in the Eastern Mediterranean, or in southern Italy, where Byzantium — an ancient Greek colony on the site that later became Constantinople — retained a territorial foothold until the 11th century.

Literacy in Greek was unusual in Western Europe before the 15th century, Dr Wright said, even among the highly educated, and Greek texts were generally read only in Latin translation.

The language became more widespread during the Renaissance, but the existence of the Greek scribe was brief, as printing came in soon afterwards. A large proportion of “professional” Byzantine scribes were monks or other clergy, though not all, Dr Wright said. By the 13th century, “cash-strapped scholars” were beginning to copy their own manuscripts to save money.

Thus, he said, a small number of classical manuscripts in the collection look “scholarly” instead of having the “formal elegance of professionally trained scribal hands”.

The recording of such unusual or distinctive letter-forms and ligatures (linked sequences of letters) used by particular scribes could help identify other manuscripts copied by the same hands, the researchers said.

A significant discovery in the collection is a Gospel book, in which several folios of another manuscript are bound as flyleaves. Underneath the predominant text — hymns in a 15th-century hand — is the erased text of a life of St John Chrysostom, and annotations on its language dating to the late ninth century. It is thought to be the oldest script in the library, with the exception of a few folios from an even older palimpsest.

Although a few manuscripts have been rebound in modern times, many of the bindings date from earlier centuries, and are of “historic interest” even without the original manuscript, the Hellenic Institute said. Scholars have included detailed descriptions of the bindings in the catalogue to conform to the standards of the Ligatus Research Centre of the University of the Arts.

The director of both the project and Royal Holloway’s Hellenic Institute, Charalambos Dendrinos, said that the collection “advances our knowledge on the relations between the Anglican Church and the Eastern Orthodox patriarchates between the 16th and 19th centuries, a period of major political and ecclesiastical changes in Europe and the Middle East”.

The Librarian and Archivist at Lambeth Palace Library, Giles Mandelbrote, said: “The culture of the Eastern Mediterranean played a vital role in the preservation and dissemination of biblical and liturgical texts.

“This scholarly catalogue, with its detailed description and copious illustration, will unlock an important resource for the wider academic community, and draw in a new generation of scholars to explore their riches.”

The project was partly funded by a two-year £121,000 grant from the A. G. Leventis Foundation. The full catalogue can be downloaded from the Lambeth Palace Library or Hellenic Institute websites.

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