How to compare manuscripts – Recensio part 1

The Latin text that I am working on has never had a critical edition.  I am actually not sure what the author wrote at points, because the editions differ so much.  What to do?

These days we have lots of manuscripts online.  But … how do we go about comparing them?  Where do we start?

Googling has not produced anything very useful.  So I thought that I would record my own thoughts, as far as I have got.

The only practical guide that I have seen is in Martin West’s Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique (1973).  On page 66 he tells us:

The manuscript is compared with a printed edition word by word, and the differences written down. Some people write them in the margins of the edition, but even if the copy is interleaved this does not give one room for more than a few manuscripts’ variants, and I usually use a separate notebook. It is essential in this case to record in writing which edition has been used for the collation, for if that is not known a collation loses much of its value. (One must bear in mind the possibility that one’s collations will one day be used by someone else, and one must therefore make sure that it is clear in this and in all other respects how they are to be interpreted.)

It is best to choose an edition which is light to travel with, will always be easily available, and keeps close to the paradosis (to minimize the amount of writing necessary); and to use the same one for each collation.

Every effort should be made to prevent confusion between the collations of different manuscripts. If they are done into the printed copy, the best thing is to use different coloured inks[2]); in a notebook, the manuscript should be identified at the top of every page.

Care must also be taken to avoid ambiguity about the location of the variant. In prose texts the lines should be numbered down each printed page and the numbers used for reference. If the variant is for a word that comes twice in the same line, or might be read as being for either of two similar words, it must be made clear which one is in question.

[2] Collations should always be in ink. If washable ink is used, beware of rain.

He goes on to add that, if you have decided to ignore some trivial points, like iota subscript (in Greek), make a note that you have done so.  Always record corrections and marginal notes.  It’s a good idea to note where the page turns; an omission in another manuscript at precisely that point is evidence of copying.

These are all good, practical points.

Now I’d like to add a couple of my own, as far as I have taken things, which is not very far.  What I write relates to Latin, but no doubt applies more or less equally to Greek.

  1.  In order to compare manuscripts effectively you do need to be familiar with the Latin text.  Otherwise you simply won’t be able to find your place.  I started downloading manuscripts at an early stage, but could do nothing with them.

2.  The best way to get familiar with a Latin text, and its peculiarities, is to prepare a translation of it.  This forces you to grapple with every word, and to work out what the author is saying and how he says it.  I know a Swedish philologist who intended to edit one of the works of Tertullian.  In preparation for the task, he prepared a translation of it, into English (!)  It may seem burdensome, but it is really a huge aid.

In my own case I have a Word file with the text broken down into a sentence or two, with my draft English translation interleaved.  This also gives me a place to write notes and… to start noting manuscript variations.  Here’s a bit from my current opus:

Example of interleaved Latin and English
Excerpt from the working file on the text and translation

Of course a single file can be overwhelming.  I work a chapter at a time, and only combine them once I’ve done three passes on each.

Windows Explorer, showing directories
Windows Explorer, showing directories
Directory showing files in progress
Work in progress!

3.  You need an edition to use as a base text.  It doesn’t matter what it is, or whether it is any good or not.  In fact a late pre-critical text, “vulgate” text, with interpolations, but punctuated, can be ideal for this purpose.  It’s likely to be based on some, dead common manuscript.  In that case, it will save you a lot of typing.  It’s just the rail on which you will hang your notes, and it is far easier to mark it with “this bit not in XYZ”.

4.  Get it into an electronic form, so you can use it as I did above.  I use Abby Finereader Pro 15, which isn’t that expensive and does Latin very nicely.  Once you have it in electronic form, you can do searches on it, when you’re staring at some manuscript and can’t remember “where does it say ‘Armata'”?  You can do comparisons automatically with other editions too, as I remarked in my last post.  You can copy and paste bits of the manuscript images into a Word document if need be.

5.  Get some manuscripts downloaded in PDF form.  The Gallica website Bibliotheque Nationale Français is great for this.  Finding manuscripts can be a pain, but this will certainly get easier as time goes by.  You should have a PDF editor on your machine, which will allow you to extract just the pages that you need.  Then you can mark it up.  I’ve used bookmarks to indicate key points in the text, and sticky notes to indicate, within a page, just where something is.  For instance in the image below, “laetamur” is the start of “chapter 15” of the printed text.

Manuscript with markup

I have a folder full of manuscripts, indicating whether they are microfilm or real, and with the date in the file name (which I recommend):

So far I have been looking at these, and marking up divisions in the text, and indicating where the chapters of the edition are.  This makes it faster to access the pages that you want, and helps you to start getting to grips with the text.

That’s as far as I have got for now.  My working file already indicates places where the editions disagree, so I will start noting the readings of the manuscripts for the same.  I’ll write another post when I’ve done more!


From my diary

Tomorrow is St Nicholas’ Day.  I’ve been working hard to complete my translation of the earliest Latin “life” of St Nicholas, by John the Deacon.  I pulled it all into one Word document at the weekend.  My intention was to read through it today a couple of times, and then get it out of the door.  At the moment various urgent but unimportant chores are getting in the way, unfortunately.

But this morning, when I woke up, I found myself thinking about the opening sentence.  I’m always wary of translationese, and I started turning it over in my head, thinking about what the writer was actually saying, and how to best express that in English.  Gradually I came up with a form of words, not very different from the translationese, and I rushed to the computer to jot it down.  This I did, and compared it with the Latin.

But I wrote that material some months ago.  Since then I have got far more familiar with John’s word order trickery.  And it struck me, at once, that I had made a couple of significant mistakes.  In the very first sentence.  Disaster!  Because if that’s wrong, how many more are wrong?

I must reluctantly conclude that I had better read through all the sentences again, and check.  So the release of the translation will be delayed.

    *    *    *    *

As I’ve worked on translating the text, I’ve also been learning how to translate it.  The process is not linear, but circular.  You have to attempt the translation, from wherever you are, and with whatever tools you have.  The process forces you to learn how to translate it.  You then have to redo your initial attempts.

This used to happen to me sometimes in my programming days.  I would attempt to make some kind of change to a mass of someone else’s code.  I’d wade into it.  And, instead of it getting simpler, more and more problems would arise.  I’d learn that I’d gone about it the wrong way.

Unwary programmers would press on, and sometimes I would be called to assist some sad-looking junior, sunk deep in a morass from which they could not extricate themselves.

But I knew better than to do that.  This was the benefit of experience, of the mental toolset that I had acquired of ways to do things.  I would simply abandon what I had done, and went back to the last version of the code that I knew worked.  Then I would start again, but this time with a greater awareness of the problems, and the places where it would all go wrong.

It’s been the same with John.  I’ve had to simply charge in and do stuff, somehow, and then find out, repeatedly, that I was wrong.

When I first started, I had the choice of two Latin texts.  There was the Mombritius edition of 1477, which was not punctuated in any normal way.  And there was the much more friendly looking Falconius edition of 1751, with chapters, punctuation.  So I chose that. There was also an 1822 edition by Angelo Mai, but this, I knew, was abbreviated.  At this time I knew nothing of the modern Corsi edition, which I was not to obtain access to for many months, nor of the 16th century Lippomano edition.

The opening portion of the 1751 Falconius edition

It was only once I had translated the whole Falconius text that I started looking at the Mombritius text.  I did so only out of laziness; because in some places the text is weird, and I wondered if the other was a better variant.

The opening section of the 1477 Mombritius text, in a modern reprint.

It all started when I got into second sentence of chapter 2, the tail end of which was basically incomprehensible.  Falconius had one reading; Mombritius another.  I wondered what the manuscripts said, and I found that none of them followed Falconius, and that they varied a lot in that sentence.  Falconius wasn’t comprehensible either.  But it became obvious from this that Falconius had silently altered the text at this point, without manuscript authority, and probably wrongly.

This led me to scan the whole Mombritius text into a word file, so that I could do a machine comparison with the Falconius text.  Of course I had to find out how to do this!  I tried various bits of software, which all had too steep a learning curve.  My skills are in linux anyway, so I ended up using something odd called dwdiff, and then writing a bit of software to display the output in colourised form.  I had to strip out the punctuation, normalise the text to lower case, turn all the v into u, and j into i.  Yes, I had to create my own method and teach myself how to compare two Latin texts.

I also scanned the Mai edition for good measure, to see just how different that was; and also the Corsi edition once I had it.

But once I had this output, the extent of the differences between the two editions became very obvious.  There they were, line upon line, in black and white – or rather, in red and green!

The output of a machine comparison between Falconius and Mombritius

It was very interesting to see how few of these changes actually affected the meaning in any way.

In the process, it became increasingly clear that the reading in Falconius could most easily be explained as derivative; that the real text of John’s work was a text of Mombritus type, which was modified.  The diff also showed that the abbreviated text printed by Mai had plainly been produced by a scribe who had a Mombritius-type text in front of him, chopping out the irrelevant moralising reflections that John added to his story; and, that after a few chapters, the scribe had simply paraphrased what John wrote.  Corsi had also started with the Falconius edition, and used a Berlin manuscript, but his edition leaned strongly toward the latter.

We have all sorts of manuscripts online these days.  So naturally it’s not too difficult just to download one.  And … suddenly I find myself wanting to collate these, to engage in stemmatics, recensio.

But I shall have to find a way to teach myself how to do these next!


A 4th century fork, with a mule-head finial

Here’s a fascinating item currently held at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Inventory no 1987.210.  It’s a “furca”, a fork, or possibly a “furcula”, a table fork.  It’s just over 8 inches long (20.4cms):

The museum date it to 375-425, but on what this is based they do not say.  I generally find that such dates in Museum catalogues are not reliable.

There is a fascinating article by Maria G. Parani, “Byzantine cutlery: an overview”. Athēnai: Christianikē Archaiologikē Hetaireia, (2010), 139-164, fortunately online here.  This reviews a range of surviving forks, from both the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian realms.  On p.147 she tells us:

Finally, reference should be made to an unpublished two-pronged silver fork said to be from Italy and dating to the late fourth or early fifth century, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Department of Greek and Roman art, inv. no. 1987.210) (Fig. 8). It is much larger than most of the examples discussed so far, with a length of 20.4 cm, and has long tines and a smooth handle terminating in an equine head. The animal-head finial brings to mind the fork mentioned in the Auxerre inventory discussed earlier. Furthermore, though much simpler, the Cleveland fork is evocative of certain silver and copper alloy Sasanian forks in terms both of general form and size….

So this is perhaps a “furca”, a serving utensil, rather than a table-fork / furcula.  What a pity that we have no excavation context for it.

We are more fortunate that the finder recognised this as “art”, as something that he could sell to a dealer for more than just its value as raw silver.  I recall reading, too long ago, that some gold items stolen by a workman at Schliemann’s excavations at Troy, were simply melted down by the local gold smith, unaware that they were priceless.  Annoying and destructive as the trade in art can be, this item probably would otherwise have been destroyed.

Lovely to see it!

H/T @romanarchaeouk.


The Lippomano edition of John the Deacon

The Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon was printed in 1751 by Falconius, who refers to the earlier edition of Mombritius in 1477, but also that of Luigi Lippomano, Sanctorum priscorum patrum vitae, vol. 2, Venice (1553).  The Life of St Nicholas begins on folio 238v, here.

I had thought that this was simply a reprint of the Mombritius text.  But while I was revising chapter 1, I came across a statement by Falconius that a certain sentence was not found in the Lippomanus edition.  This was odd, because I could see in my collation that it was indeed present in the Mombritius edition.

This morning, I thought that it would be wise to take a look at the Lippomanus edition.  Here’s the opening:

Opening of Lippomanus edition of the Life of St Nicholas.

This contains the useful statement about the text he is printing:

Habetur in libro antiquo Mediolani impresso, necnon in altero monachorum sancti Nazarii Veronensii iam 300 annis in pergameno scripto.

It is found in an ancient book printed in Milan, as well as in another belonging to the monks of St. Nazarius of Verona written 300 years ago on parchment.

The printed book can only be the Mombritius, an incunable printed 76 years earlier.  But clearly the lure of a manuscript copy was too much for the editor.

The text is given with paragraph breaks, as some of the manuscripts do, and with notes and textual variants in the margin, but also, sadly, with abbreviations in the text.  It then follows on with the piece about Vandal Africa, which is also found in Mombritius, and then several more Nicholas miracle stories.  It ends on f.248 with a remarkable marginal blast at protestant critics:

Quid hic dicis, haeretice, qui blatteras sanctos esse emortuos? Videturne tibi mortuus Nicholas, qui tamen mirabile opus patravit?

What do you say here, heretic, who blathers that the saints are dead? Does it seem to you that Nicholas is dead, who nevertheless accomplished a wonderful work?

I’m not sure that the Lippomano edition is actually useful for anything now – not enough to OCR it, anyway – but it is certainly interesting to see.


From my diary

I’ve returned to my translation of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  I hope to have this ready and make it available by St Nicholas’ Day, December 6.  At the moment I am reading through the files from the start, and comparing it with the excellent Italian translation by P. Corsi based on a different manuscript.  I have decided to descope the textual issues, and simply write something in an introduction.

But as I work through the text and translation, sentence by sentence, I am consulting the collation that I made of the Mombritius, Falconius and Corsi editions.  So far there are almost no places in the text in which the differences make any difference to the translation.  This will not be true for chapters 12 and 13, where the Falconius edition prints a completely different piece of text.  That will have to be printed as an appendix.  But even then, the same basic story is being told.

Otherwise the differences between the texts are trivial.  I do get the impression that the Mombritius text is an earlier form, which was revised to make it easier to understand.  John the Deacon is a complete swine for strange word orders, and some of these seem to have been smoothed out.  This tends to support the idea of two recensions of the text.  It would not be surprising if the Latin of 800 AD did not seem somewhat strange to copyists of five centuries later.

This week something interesting happened.  Two different people wrote to inform me of their crank theories of history.  One wrote briefly that Tertullian never existed.  The other seemed to be connected to the Worldwide Church of God somehow, and had elaborated the mythmaking of Herbert Armstrong even more.  The approach taken to history was the same; only the “conclusions” were widely different.

A thought occurred to me that I ought to create a page listing these people, and giving a short paragraph describing their claim.  There is Ralph Ellis with his series of books suggesting that the gospel events took place after 60 AD and referencing King Arthur.  There was Acharya S, with her weird claims about Horus.  There’s the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, with its bastard child, the Da Vinci Code. There is always Eric von Daniken with “Was God an astronaut?”  All these people use the same approach.  They all claim to be giving “the real history”, “suppressed” by whoever – usually the Vatican. They all start with a theory and a pair of scissors, and shape the data into whatever shape they need.  They all deride “so-called scholars”, usually with an ad hominem.  And so on.

Individually these people can confuse ordinary people, who don’t know that this is a genre.  But gathered together, where anybody can compare them, they are powerless.  I must get onto this some time.


Textual instability in hagiographical texts

I’ve returned to working on a translation of John the deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  I made a draft translation of the whole text, based upon the Falconius edition of 1751, before realising that this edition is not based on the authentic Life.  This was most evident in chapters 12 and 13, where the text of the 1477 Mombritius edition is radically different.  Worse, John the Deacon writes Latin in a slightly odd way.  For instance he loves to hide the subject of a sentence somewhere at the far end.  Even a non-Latinist like myself notices these things.  But these odd features are present in the Mombritius version of chapters 12-13, and not in the Falconius version.  I can find no manuscript of the Falconius version.

So I created word files of the Mombritius text of these two chapters, and began with chapter 13.  Today I returned to chapter 12.

One reason why I preferred the Falconius edition was that it is punctuated in a vaguely modern manner.  By contrast the Mombritius text gives you stuff like this, full of semi-colons.

All you can do is to work out the sense and punctuate it yourself.

But then I had a revelation.  I have a copy of P. Corsi’s edition of a Berlin manuscript of the text, acquired just before I had to shelve everything.  This is, of course, punctuated.  I would probably have used this, had I had access to it when I started this project.  But at the very least I could consult it and create a  punctuated Mombritius text for the remainder of chapter 12.

Doing so was very interesting.  When you start looking for commas, you end up collating the two texts.

As I proceeded down the page, the conviction grew on me that the Berlin text given by Corsi had been modified by somebody in order to make it more readable.  The changes were minor, but they all tended in that direction.  The word order was sometimes simplified, even if the same words were there.  Remember that the weird word order of Mombritius is one of the fingerprints of the authentic text of John the Deacon, but it must always have been a pain to the reader, just as it is to me.

In other places a word or three were added, to clarify.  It didn’t change the meaning, but it did make it easier to understand.  Only one sentence was fairly radically rewritten, but again the sense was the same.

All these changes are intelligible if we remember that hagiographical texts are NOT literary texts.  In a literary text, the precise word used is important.  But a hagiographical text is a written version of a legend, and often a version intended to be read aloud in church services.  The exact words are nothing – what matters is the content.  The text may be in Latin – but only because Latin is the esperanto of the medieval church.

To John the Deacon, writing in Naples around 800 AD, Latin was not such a dead language as it was to the medieval copyists of half a millenium later.  He was no doubt proud of his latinity.  But to those wanting something to read aloud at the daily dinner, it was merely an obstacle.  Nothing in the copying process necessitated producing a copy which was hard to understand.


Bogus Bible Translations

People are strange, and they do weird things.  But, as they said at Watergate, when nothing makes sense, follow the money.  See where it goes from, and who it goes to, and that will tell you what’s really going on.

There are people out there who have created, deliberately, and at some expense, faked “translations” of the bible.  Truly there are.  Obviously you can’t believe that what you are doing is honest, or that the product of your scissors is in any way the word of God.  You must, indeed, believe that there is no god – only guns, girls and gold, and that you want them.  The history of religion is not lacking in examples of clergymen who thought in precisely those terms.

Marcion was an early exponent of this approach to the bible.  Faced with a nascent New Testament that did not say what he wanted, he took out his knife and chopped out all the bits that he didn’t like.  Tertullian pointed out, in reply, that, from even the passages that Marcion had not excised , the falsity of Marcion and his claims could be shown.

Nor is this a purely ancient trend.  In Nazi Germany, one of Hitler’s slaves demanded that the bible be purged in a similar way, to eliminate the Old Testament and to revise the New Testament “in accordance with the principles of National Socialism”.  This was too much, even in Nazi Germany, and the Reich authorities were obliged to disown the over-eager flatterer.

These days we know better.  We can simply “adjust” the translation into English, and pretend that the text is “uncertain”, even though nobody ever was uncertain about what it meant.

The best known example of this is the New World Translation, produced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  This mistranslates John 1:1 as “and the word was a god”.  Of course nobody outside of that harmless cult pays any attention to this.  It is entirely possible that the leaders of the cult got themselves sincerely confused; but on the other hand, they profit from it.  It helps to shore up their organisation.  The cult arose among US Protestants, who revere the bible, so there is an obvious motive to have your own bible version, in order to muddy the waters as to what the bible says.  This can hardly be done honestly, unless those leaders were truly ignorant, but of course maybe they were.  Let us hope so.

Most cultists, however, do not go this far.  Instead they produce supplementary texts, such as the Koran or Book of Mormon.  This requires far less effort.

I wonder what other faked translations exist?  There must be others!  A list would be a useful thing to have.

A few weeks ago I heard of a new one.  Again produced in the USA, this calls itself the “New Revised Standard Version – Updated Edition” (NRSVue).  It’s based on the respected NRSV, but edited, according to the preface, with the following principles:

The NRSVue extends the New Revised Standard Version’s (NRSV) purpose to deliver an accurate, readable, up-to-date, and inclusive version of the Bible. … The NRSVue continues and improves the effort to eliminate masculine-oriented language when it can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture. … Only occasionally has the pronoun “he” or “him” or other gendered language been retained in passages where the reference may have been to a woman as well as to a man, for example, in several legal texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. …. In the vast majority of cases, however, inclusiveness has been attained by simple rephrasing or by introducing plural forms when this does not distort meaning.

One of the editors states, with a curious lack of self-awareness:

To avoid defining a person by a disability, the NRSVue makes a good faith effort to adopt person-first diction. Thus, Matthew 4:24 in the NRSVue speaks of “people possessed by demons or having epilepsy or afflicted with paralysis.”

Likewise, to make a distinction between a person’s identity and a condition imposed on that person, the NRSVue of Galatians 4:22 uses the expression “an enslaved woman,” as opposed to a “slave woman.”

In the tradition of the NRSV, the NRSV tries to avoid what famed translator Bruce Metzger called “linguistic sexism,” which means “the inherent bias of the English language toward the masculine gender” (see the “To the Reader” preface in the NRSV). So, in Romans 16:1, the NRSVue retains the word “deacon” for Phoebe as opposed to the belittling “deaconess” terminology found in a few other translations. Going beyond the NRSV, however, the NRSVue replaces the belittling “servant-girl” expression in Mark 14:69 by referring to the woman of that text as a “female servant.”

Finally, the NRSV regrettably had used lowercase letters to describe some Jewish calendrical observances. Lest doing so be interpreted as disrespectful, such observances as the Sabbath and Passover are now rendered in capital letters. Accordingly, in John 5:9, the NRSVue reads “Now that day was a Sabbath,” which replaces the NRSV’s reading: “Now that day was a sabbath.”  …

The goal all along was to be as gender diverse and ethnically diverse as possible and to welcome teams of translators that were both ecumenical and interfaith in their composition.

Few will be very impressed by any of this.  This is no way to produce a translation.  The purpose here is the same as with the JWs – to take advantage of those with an inherited respect for the bible, and abuse it in order to advance their own, and quite different, ends.  As might be expected, the new “version” makes some improvements on 1 Cor. 6:9.  This reads in the NRSV:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

but in the NRSVue:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes,[a] men who engage in illicit sex,[b] 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

With the footnote in both places “Meaning of Gk uncertain”.  I’m sure the authors laughed as they wrote that.

It is slightly sinister to find that Bible Gateway has removed the real NRSV in favour of the faked version – I had to use the “Anglicised” version.  But we need not spend more time on this mendacious exercise, although doubtless some people will have to.  The contempt of posterity, and the hell in which they do not believe, awaits its authors.  The production also highlights a deep-seated intellectual corruption affecting the humanities in US universities.

But … can anyone name other, deliberately falsified, versions of the bible?


Rediscovering the star-map of Hipparchus

In Nature last month there was an extremely interesting article recording the discovery of a new text by Hipparchus in the palimpsest Codex Climaci Rescriptus, during – of all things! – a summer project led by Peter Williams of Tyndale Hall in Cambridge:

First known map of night sky found hidden in Medieval parchment – Fabled star catalogue by ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus had been feared lost.

A medieval parchment from a monastery in Egypt has yielded a surprising treasure. Hidden beneath Christian texts, scholars have discovered what seems to be part of the long-lost star catalogue of the astronomer Hipparchus — believed to be the earliest known attempt to map the entire sky. …

 The extract is published online this week in the Journal for the History of Astronomy. Evans says it proves that Hipparchus, often considered the greatest astronomer of ancient Greece, really did map the heavens centuries before other known attempts. It also illuminates a crucial moment in the birth of science, when astronomers shifted from simply describing the patterns they saw in the sky to measuring and predicting them.

The manuscript came from the Greek Orthodox St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, but most of its 146 leaves, or folios, are now owned by the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. The pages contain the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a collection of Syriac texts written in the tenth or eleventh centuries. But the codex is a palimpsest: parchment that was scraped clean of older text by the scribe so that it could be reused.

The older writing was thought to contain further Christian texts and, in 2012, biblical scholar Peter Williams at the University of Cambridge, UK, asked his students to study the pages as a summer project. One of them, Jamie Klair, unexpectedly spotted a passage in Greek often attributed to the astronomer Eratosthenes. In 2017, the pages were re-analysed using state-of-the-art multispectral imaging.

Nine folios revealed astronomical material, which (according to radiocarbon dating and the style of the writing) was probably transcribed in the fifth or sixth centuries. It includes star-origin myths by Eratosthenes and parts of a famous third-century-BC poem called Phaenomena, which describes the constellations. Then, while poring over the images during a coronavirus lockdown, Williams noticed something much more unusual. He alerted science historian Victor Gysembergh at the French national scientific research centre CNRS in Paris. “I was very excited from the beginning,” says Gysembergh. “It was immediately clear we had star coordinates.”

The surviving passage, deciphered by Gysembergh and his colleague Emmanuel Zingg at Sorbonne University in Paris, is about a page long. It states the length and breadth in degrees of the constellation Corona Borealis, the northern crown, and gives coordinates for the stars at its extreme north, south, east and west. …

The article is long and interesting.  The formal publication is Gysembergh, V., Williams, P. J. & Zingg, E., “New evidence for Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue revealed by multispectral imaging”, J. Hist. Astron. 53, 383–393 (2022), and it actually seems to be online here.  From this:

Ὁ στέφανος ἐν τῷ βορείῳ ἡμισφαιρίῳ κείμενος κατὰ μῆκος μὲν ἐπέχει μ̊ θ̅ καὶ δ̅ ́ ἀπὸ τῆς α̅ μ̊ τοῦ σκορπίου ἕως ι̅ <καὶ> δ̅ ́ μ̊ τοῦ αὐτοῦ ζῳδίου. Κατὰ πλάτος δ᾽ ἐπέχει μ̊ ς̅ C καὶ δ̅ ́ ἀπὸ μ̅θ̅ μ̊ ἀπὸ τοῦ βορείου πόλου ἕως μ̊ ν̅ε̅ C καὶ δ̅ ́.
Προηγεῖται μὲν γὰρ ἐν αὐτῷ ὁ ἐχόμενος τοῦ λαμπροῦ ὡς πρὸς δύσιν ἐπέχων τοῦ σκορπίου τῆς α̅ μ̊ τὸ ἥμισυ. Ἔσχατος δὲ πρὸς ἀνατολὰς κεῖται ὁ δ′ ἐχόμενος ἐπ᾽ ἀνατολὰς τοῦ λαμπροῦ ἀστέρος [. . .] τοῦ βορείου πόλου μ̊ μ̅θ̅· νοτιώτατος δὲ ὁ γ′ ἀπὸ τοῦ λαμπροῦ πρὸς ἀνατολὰς ἀριθμούμενος ὃς ἀπέχει τοῦ πόλου μ̊ ν̅ε̅ C καὶ δ̅ ́.
Corona Borealis, lying in the northern hemisphere, in length spans 9°¼ from the first degree of Scorpius to 10°¼8 in the same zodiacal sign (i.e. in Scorpius). In breadth it spans 6°¾ from 49° from the North Pole to 55°¾.
Within it, the star (β CrB) to the West next to the bright one (α CrB) leads (i.e. is the first to rise), being at Scorpius 0.5°. The fourth9 star (ι CrB) to the East of the bright one (α CrB) is the last (i.e. to rise) [. . .]10 49° from the North Pole. Southernmost (δ CrB) is the third counting from the bright one (α CrB) towards the East, which is 55°¾ from the North Pole.

The technical details are of interest mainly to specialists.

The manuscript itself left Mount Sinai sometime in late 19th century, and ended up in the hands of the Cairo book dealers.  Agnes Lewis Smith, one of the “Sisters of Sinai” who discovered the Old Coptic Syriac gospels, was able to use her wealth and connections to purchase most of it between 1895-1906.  She left it to Westminster Hall, a theological college in Cambridge, where it snoozed away for a century.  But manuscripts have few long-term homes.  Indeed I recall that there was a minor scandal in 2010 when the college, pressed for money, decided to sell off the treasure at Sothebys for ready cash.

It seems that the book ended up in the hands of the American Steve Green, owner of Hobby Lobby, who was using his wealth, much as Agnes Lewis Smith had done, to retrieve valuable articles from the art trade.  He created a Museum of the Bible to house his collection, not without incredible vitriol from some papyrologists.  The purchase brought it into a quite different circle of scholars, with the results that we see.

It’s always a shame when an old collection is broken up.  Yet it is not always a bad thing.  Had the manuscript remained in Cambridge, would these contents still be unknown?  There is irony here, forTyndale Hall is also in Cambridge.  Yet the study could take place only once the manuscript had passed to the USA, and into the hands of a man wealthy enough to fund multi-spectral imaging, and inclined to do so.

Perhaps more collections need to be broken up?


The November Poems in the Chronography of 354

Four manuscripts of the Chronography contain an image for this month.  This includes the Barberini manuscript, with the poems.

Here is the 4-line poem (tetrastich):

Carbaseos post hunc artus indutus amictus
Memphidos antiquae sacra deamque colit.
A quo vix avidus sistro compescitur anser
Devotusque satis incola, Memphi, deis.

After this, arms limbs clad in a linen cloak,
He worships the sacred things and goddess of ancient Memphis:
The greedy goose is hardly kept in check by him with a sistrum,
And has been entirely devoted by the householder to the gods, O Memphis.
And, just enough, the ‘dweller’ devoted to the gods, O Memphis.

The “dweller” is perhaps the sacred snake in the temple, depicted in the image.

The 2-line verse (distich) is as follows:

Frondibus amissis repetunt sua frigora mensem
Cum iuga Centaurus celsa retorquet eques.

Gone are the leaves, and its frosts reclaim the month,
When the rider Centaurus turns the great plough the centaur-knight Sagittarius shakes off the lofty yoke Plough.

I’m not sure of the sense of the second line here.

Probably the most faithful of the renaissance copies is R1, Ms. Vatican Barberini lat. 2154 B, fol. 22r.  The tetrastich is in the margin at the right – plainly a later addition -, the first line of the distich at the bottom.

MS. Vatican Barberini lat. 2154 part B, folio 22r. November.

Here’s the obviously redrawn image in the 16th century Vienna manuscript 3416, folio 35 (online here):

MS Vienna 3146 f.35. November.

The Brussels Ms, fol.202r:

And finally the Berlin copy:

From Divjak and Wischmeyer, I learn that November is associated with the cult of Isis and the festival of the Isaia.  The depiction is of a bald-headed priest of Isis, wearing a linen robe and holding a sistrum in his right hand.  On either side of the arm are two pomegranates, with stalks and leaves.  Below these is a goose.  In his left hand he holds a plate, from the middle of which a sacred snake rears up.  There are objects on the plate – possibly leaves or fruits. To the left is another pomegranate, and then an altar, on top of which stands an animal head, a jackal, as in Anubis, with a cloth base and some kind of plate in the middle of the neck, perhaps a hinge?  Is it perhaps an Anubis mask, worn over the head?

(For more information on this series of posts, please see the Introduction to the Poems of the Chronography of 354).

UPDATE: 10 Nov 2022: Correction to translation of Distich, thanks to Suburbanbanshee.
UPDATE: 28 Nov 2022: More corrections to both, thanks to Alexander MacAulay.
UPDATE: 29 Nov 2022: And resolution on the tetrastich from Diego – thank you.


The Last Hieroglyph

The late Roman state was far more loosely organised than any modern state.  The abolition of official paganism at the end of the fourth century did not mean that all the temples were shut down.  Many continued to exist, so long as the local population wanted them to.  Near Alexandria at the start of the 6th century, a temple of Isis was in full operation at Menouthis, as we learn from the Life of Severus of Antioch by Zacharias Rhetor, and was destroyed by Peter Mongus after a scandal involving a temple prostitute.

The temple complex at Philae, on the southern border of Egypt, or beyond it, remained open later still, until it was closed in 535-7 by Justinian.  The sources are included and translated in volume 3 of the rather remarkable Fontes Historiae Nubiorum (=FHN).  Procopius tells us in his De bello Persico 1.19.37:

Both these peoples, the Blemmyes and the Nobatai, revere all the other gods in which pagans [Hellenes] believe, as well as Isis and Osiris, and not least Priapus. But the Blemmyes even have the custom of sacrificing human beings to the Sun.  These barbarians retained the sanctuaries on Philae right down to my day, but the Emperor Justinian decided to pull them down. Accordingly Narses, a Persarmenian by birth, whom I mentioned before as having deserted to the Romans, and who was in command of the troops there, pulled down the sanctuaries on the on the Emperor’s orders, held the priests under guard, and sent the images to Byzantium.[1]

The temples at Philae still stand, however, even today, so this is not entirely accurate.

19th century view of Philae from here.

When David Roberts visited in the 1830s, the preservation of the interior of the temple was really quite extraordinary.  Sadly these brilliant colours were destroyed by the waters of the first Aswan dam in 1911.

Philae, by David Roberts RA

Justinian’s expedition does mark an ending point.  Around the same time, or possibly even before then, a church is built within the precincts of the temple.

There had been strong political reasons for the temple to remain open.  Isis was worshipped well beyond the Roman frontier.  No doubt it suited the prefect of Egypt in far away Alexandria to keep this connection with the tribesmen to the south.  In 452 or 453 we find the historian Priscus, an eyewitness, writing (fragment 21) about the Roman treaty with the Blemmyes and Noubades, after defeating them:

In this it was agreed …that, in accordance with the ancient custom, their crossing to the temple of Isis be unhindered, Egyptians having charge of the river boat in which the statue of the goddess (Isis) is placed and ferried across the river. For at a stated time the barbarians bring the wooden statue to their own country and, after having consulted it, return it safely to the island.  Therefore Maximinus decided that it was appropriate that the text of the compact be ratified in the temple of Philae.[2]

Philae is also the location of the latest-dated hieroglyphic inscription known to us; and likewise the latest-dated demotic inscription.  These also are listed in the FHN 3, section 306 (p.1121).

The last known hieroglyphic inscription is apparently known as the “Graffito of Esmet-Akhom”, and was inscribed in both hieroglyphic and demotic on 24 August 394. The wikipedia article includes a redrawing.  The figure is of the Nubian god, Mandulis.  To the right are the hieroglyphs, and the demotic (=GPH 436, or IDemPhilae 436) is in a panel under the hand of the god:

IDemPhilae 436 – the last hieroglyphic inscription, with demotic panel under the hand, the “graffito of Esmet-Akhom”. 24 August, 394.

There does not seem to be a database of demotic inscriptions, so we are reliant on older book-form publications.  I find that F.L.Griffith published a collection of demotic graffiti in 1937, under the title of Catalogue of the Demotic Graffiti of the Dodecaschoenus, so the graffiti at Philae are GPh 436, or IDemPhilae 436, etc.

The hieroglyphs in this last inscription read (translation via Wikipedia):

Before Mandulis, son of Horus, by the hand of Nesmeterakhem, son of Nesmeter, the Second Priest of Isis, for all time and eternity. Words spoken by Mandulis, lord of the Abaton, great god.

The demotic adds a date:

I, Nesmeterakhem, the Scribe of the House of Writings(?) of Isis, son of Nesmeterpanakhet the Second Priest of Isis, and his mother Eseweret, I performed work on this figure of Mandulis for all time, because he is fair of face towards me. Today, the Birthday of Osiris, his dedication feast, year 110.

The impressive Nile Scribes blog here details the exact location.  The FHN comments that the author may have dedicated this inscription to a Nubian god, rather than to Isis, on 24 August 394, just after the abolition of the temples, in order to safeguard his position in the cold new world.  That’s the end of hieroglyphics.  Soon after, no doubt, the script became unintelligible.

Philae also contains the last known demotic inscription.  Outside of Philae, the script had ceased to be used before 300 AD.  Carved on the 12 December 452, on the second pylon, is GPH 365,[3] of which Griffith gave the following drawing:

GPh365 – the last demotic inscription

Our graffito is the one on the left, which reads:

Esmeyt senior, son of Pakhom, the first prophet of Isis, his mother’s name Tshenesmet, the daughter of a chief priest of Isis Esmet junior the second prophet of Isis, son of Haretyotf; today, day 12, Choiak, year 169.

The day was given by Griffith as “day 6”, i.e. 2 December, but Eugene Cruz-Uribe states that it should be read as “sw 16″, i.e. the 12 December.[4].

And that’s it.  That’s the end of demotic too.  The future belonged to Coptic.

  1. [1]FHN 3, section 328, p.1190-1
  2. [2]Translated in Fontes Historiae Nubiorum, 4 vols, Bergen (1994-2000); vol. 3, section 318, p.1153.  Via Dijkstra.
  3. [3]F.L. Griffith, Catalogue of the Demotic Graffiti of the Dodecaschenenus, vol. 1: text (1937), p.102-3; vol. 2 plates here.  See also this preview at Brill here for a correction on the date.
  4. [4]Eugene Cruz-Uribe, “The Last Demotic Inscription”, in Hieratic, Demotic and Greek studies and text editions: Festschrift in honour of Sven P. Vleeming, Brill (2018)