An earlier Morton Smith – D’Antraigues and Clement’s “Hypotyposeis”

I have today come across a very curious paper, telling a strange story.  I give the opening portion here.[1]

In the early Spring of 1779 a young French nobleman pulled up his camel outside the ancient monastery of Anba Makar, just off the main route between Alexandria and Cairo. He had in his pocket a letter of introduction from the Pacha, but the thirty-foot walls and the total absence of gates seemed to make a ready welcome unlikely. Louis de Launay, comte d’Antraigues, had left France on 11 June 1778 on board His Majesty’s Ship Caton, accompanying his uncle,the comte de Saint-Priest, French ambassador at the Sublime Porte. He began to record his journey in the minutest detail, in memoirs and letters, which ultimately found their way into the Municipal Library at Dijon.  Little seemed to escape the attentionof this alert and enquiring traveller—archaeology, history, geography, political systems, social customs, religious practices. His strong reactions to the injustices of despotism which he encountered on his journey (Turkey, Egypt, Wallachia, Bessarabia, Poland, Austria) firmed up his political position, which helped him to become a formidable revolutionary pamphleteer by 1789. And his attention to detail was a good preparation for the work he was to do, from 1791 until his murder in Barnes Terrace, near London, in 1812, during which period he was the central figure in the counter-revolutionary espionage network in Europe.

From the foot of the wall of the monastery, which he calls St. Macaire, he managed to attract the attention of one of the monks; the letter of introduction was hoisted aloft on a rope and after some delay the head of house showed himself and invited d’Antraigues and his party in. ‘In’ meant ‘up’: a chair was lowered in which he, his drogman, and two companions were hauled up over the wall; the Arab guide and drivers, having been paid in advance, were left to camp outside the walls.

On the second day, he and his dragoman spent eight hours in the library going through ancient manuscripts. His findings filled him with delight. Not only the authors represented, but the details of the development of handwriting and orthography, the effect of time on different inks, the art of dating manuscripts, all fascinated him. The source of his information on these erudite matters (hardly the stock-in-trade of a rather wild ex-officer and man-about-court) will be referred to shortly. He had done sufficient homework beforehand to be able to recognize a truly remarkable find: a seventh-century manuscript of the Hypotyposeis (Outlines) of Clement ofAlexandria, the second-century Christian apologist and reputed master of Origen. He was aware that the work had always been considered as lost, known only by fragments quoted by Eusebius. Eusebius describes them as summaries, interpretations, and narratives of all canonical scripture.

But what d’Antraigues saw wasquite different: 208 large folio pages of the work,

. . . ecrites en lettres capitales dans le VIIe siecle avec des notes a la marge d’un autre caractere.

He goes on to note details of the author and his work:

“… Les Hypotiposes de St. Clement sont rassemblees dans un grand volume in folio de parchemin couvert en bois et garni de plaques de losanges. Il contient 208 feuilles.”

D’Antraigues saw a number of other manuscripts which he recognized as valuable—a third-century Polybius, a complete Diodorus of Sicily dating from the third century, and a seventh-century Pausanias—and offered to buy them for a handsome price. But these impoverished monks refused, because they knew the French were addicted to magic, and these books were ‘grammars of this diabolical art’. They would rather burn the library down, they maintained, than let them fall into the hands of a Frenchman.

Nevertheless, the simple virtues of these ignorant monks left a profound impression on him; to have robbed them of a book would have been a cruel abuse of hospitality which men of letters might commit, but he was not such a ‘vil escroc’ as that.

Of course not.  What a charming, honest fellow, he must be, this young chap with gambling debts and, no doubt, a manuscript for sale?

The whole narrative is probably false.  What gives it away is the introduction of the three classical texts.  What on earth would a Coptic monastery be doing with Greek texts?  Especially with Greek pagan texts?  And, not just a bit of Diodorus Siculus, but the whole, huge text?  No, this is rubbish.  We see book-lists manufactured during the 17-18th century, which dangle the existence of Hegesippus, of the Greek Irenaeus, of Eusebius against Porphyry and other long lost texts before the eyes of curious westerners.  That all were manufactured by orientals who stood to profit thereby is not in doubt.

The article adds, naively:

Certainly, since d’Antraigues could show great powers of imagination where the depiction of feelings or dramatic scenes was concerned, one has to face up to the possibility that he falsified the account of his discovery of the Clement manuscript. It is very difficult, however, to admit it as serious. Claiming discovery of a non-existent manuscript in memoirs which he never attempted to publish seems rather unlikely for a young man who had no intention of aspiring to membership of the Academie des Inscriptions.

Sadly it is not so simple.  It is possible to think of various ways in which someone who had “made such a find” could expect notoriety, and various useful ways to make money would become possible.

Reading the way in which the article discussed a few of the obvious problems with the account — and devised learned reasons why they were not problematic — brought to mind the way in which people discuss the claims of Morton Smith to have found a letter of Clement at Mar Saba, containing a “Secret Gospel” of Mark.

For the moment the article can be found here, at ScribD.  It is well worth perusing the opening section.

  1. [1]Colin Duckworth and Eric Osborn, Clement of Alexandria’s ‘Hypotyposeis’: A French Eighteenth-Century Sighting, JTS NS 36 (1985), p.67-83.

7 thoughts on “An earlier Morton Smith – D’Antraigues and Clement’s “Hypotyposeis”

  1. Yes, it does seem fictitious. However, a Coptic monastery could very easily have Greek manuscripts, the Copts never translated much historical, scientific, literary, or theological Greek texts because they typically referred to the original Greek. I have never heard of a monastery in Egypt which did not have a gate of any kind, that adds significant doubts to the story in my mind (aside from of course the small chance of actually finding the alleged texts in one place in such wonderful condition) hope you are well Roger.

  2. Yes bad arguments abound in the discussion of Mar Saba 65. None worse than someone who is not a handwriting expert claiming a ‘forger’s tremor’ from a low resolution image of a manuscript when high quality color images of the same text were available to him. With that said, being in the process of studying D’Antraingues, his motivation for lying about the manuscript certainly had nothing to do with profiting from the same of a manuscript. He can be accused of being a nobleman dévorés par l’ennui. In other words, wanting to make his life interesting through exaggeration. He was sent to Egypt to avoid the scandal of being a womanizer and even manages to include an elaborate (and dangerous) ‘striptease’ narrative during his journey with members of the harem of the Pascha.

    The story is illustrative because its many differences with the account of the Mar Saba discovery. The most obvious being that we actually have a manuscript in the latter example. I am not going to offer my own assessment of the question of whether ANY ancient manuscripts existed at Macaire (at least one other early French writer claims there was an Arabic translation of an ancient historical author in ‘the desert of St Macarius’). Yes the story is problematic – much more problematic than the Morton Smith story. In that case it comes down to a cut and dry question – whether a manuscript that was seen by multiple witness is a forgery. In this case, a far more unreasonable claim of early Greek manuscripts in a Coptic monastery.

  3. Actually I *have* heard of the blocked-up gate. Lawlessness in the Ottoman empire was such that these kinds of precautions had to be taken. Even the “soldiers” were often little more than licensed brigands.

    But I can’t say that I agree with your first point. This can’t be correct. There aren’t lots of Greek mss in Coptic monasteries, as far as I know … are there?

    Still unwell, but rest and sunshine are working wonders!

  4. It’s highly unlikely – if not incredible – to claim to find Greek manuscripts in a Coptic monastery at this late date. Alin Suciu notes that when Giuseppe Assemani visited the library of the Monastery of St. Macarius in the 20s of the 18th century, he reports that he found there only Coptic Bohairic and Arabic manuscripts (the Bohairic manuscripts he brought with him to the Vatican). This is actually what one expects to find in a Coptic monastery, not Greek historians. Nevertheless, it is an extremely appealing fiction, isn’t it?

  5. I’m going to post the second article from Osborn in Second Century tonight at the same place. It’s just three pages long but describes his attempts to discover the manuscript at St Macarius. I will also put my correspondences with Ugo Zanetti anonymously cited in the article who happened to have catalogued the contents of the library recently at my blog.

  6. Good points about the Greek manuscripts, I had my head stuck in late antiquity and not in the 18th century milieu. Anyway, I believe the account said that there were not any gates, implying that the walls were made without Gates — highly unlikely and at least the present monastery by that name does have gates.

    It would be wonderful if some of those works mentioned were found though

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