In the World of Greek Manuscripts

Back to wonderful Washington for another summer of warm sun and Greek codices. It is not easy to count all the exciting moments of going through thousands of pages of Greek text and hundreds of films which we sometimes save from decay by a hair’s breadth; but I can contribute my ὀβολός here.

The Dumbarton Oaks microfilm collection is almost 70 years old and their microfilm by now have acquired a history of their own. We are trying to preserve all the available information on each film: who ordered them and when, how they arrived to the Library, how they were preserved, borrowed or reordered (sometimes even how much they were paid for, like the exquisite Seraglio Octateuch, whose filming cost $50 in December 1966). The result of their use in the Library is a series of seminal studies by eminent scholars, including the critical editions of the works of Michael Psellus, Patriarch Photius, and Theodore Metochites, which we now list as standard bibliography in our project database.

After so many years, the boxes sometimes contain microfilm without labels or identification marks. In such cases, it takes some detective work to identify the manuscript in question. Last year I added Vossianus Misc. 12 to the Library catalog in this manner; this summer, I identified two strips of film on the same reel with Patm. 178, without label and with folio numbers illegible, as the final fifty folios of Codex Patm. 706.

From these manuscripts, that is for sure, one can learn how to use abbreviations, where to paint which angel, or how to write the largest beta of one’s life. But like everywhere, the most important and the most interesting part of the story are the people. In this sense, Greek manuscripts tell countless stories about people by whom they were written, illuminated, corrected, commented on, bought, sold, presented, or stolen. Sometimes those are luxuriously illuminated Gospels for empresses, sometimes they contain densely written philosophical texts, Foucault and Derrida of the day, yet other times they are illustrated with elaborate diagrams of the Ptolemaic system with fascinating images of the Zodiac, or schemes of Pythagorean correspondences between planets, chords of the lyre, and musical scales.

Touching to me are especially the post-Byzantine codices, often works of Greeks of modest resources in an effort to preserve their literary heritage, like the humble hieromonk Cyril from Delvino in Epirus, who apologized for not keeping the order of Photius’ Amphilochia because he had to write them in a hurry to return the borrowed prototype (διότι ἤθελον νὰ πάρουν τὸ πρωτότυπον βιβλίον, Jer. Taph. 181, a. 1698). Other times they were written by Greek immigrants in the West, like Constantine Lascaris, who collected and copied Hellenic texts for his own spiritual benefit in xenitiá (now Vat. gr. 1353). Several microfilmed items are recent handwritten transcripts by scholars or even falsifiers (such is the case of K.B. Hase, famously exposed by Professor Ševčenko). There are also Slavic, Armenian, Arabic, English and other manuscripts, including an Italian book of family history, ordered by error, which contains a medley of items ranging from medieval Latin chronicles to formal dinner invitations to press cuttings from the 1930s.

If books were used by people, it was not only for lofty purposes; we may only wonder why were particular texts included in some codices. Among the learned commentaries on Aristotle in Jer. Taph. 106, for example, someone inserted a text on weather prognostics based on directions of winds; in Vat. gr. 1461, at the end of an ancient epistolary, a correspondence of quite peculiar kind was added.  A health-conscious monk wrote two recipes for stomach ache at the end of Jer. Taph. 111, while in Patm. 548 another monk who was apparently fond of seafaring copied several pages of the Treatise on How to Cut a Mast (Ἑρμηνεία εἰς κόψιμον μαΐστρας).

For the end, I am adding two edifying examples of extreme modesty and pride, both taken from Patmos codices. At the end of Patm. 172, a beautiful ninth-century collection of canonical texts, the scribe added a polished hexameter of exemplary humility:

Γράψε τίς;—οἶδε Θεός. Τίνος εἵνεκεν;—οἶδε καὶ αὐτός.

(Who wrote this? God knows who. And for whom? He knows, too.)

Five centuries later, in Patm. 366, Philotheos of Selymbria, a high-ranking cleric, was not troubled by such limitations. In his erudite dialog on dogmatic theology, which he corrected with his own hand—apparently after the time he became a metropolitan—he edited “By Philotheos the hieromonk” in the title by crossing out the word “hieromonk” and writing in elegant letters on top of it: “Metropolitan of Selymbria.”

So far we have finished processing the major collection holdings of the libraries of Athens, Mount Athos, Florence, London, Madrid, Munich, and Vatican; Paris and Oxford are on our desks. Θεοῦ θέλοντος, the greatest part of the microfilm collection will be processed by the end of this summer.

Vladimir Bošković


I am a PhD candidate in the Program of Modern Greek Studies at Harvard. I graduated in Classics from the University of Belgrade and finished a graduate specialization in Modern Greek Literature at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. My dissertation deals with ethical philosophy of the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis.