Notes upon the modern history of the “Bruce codex”

A correspondent kindly sent me a copy of a rather interesting recent paper on the “Bruce codex”, which deserves the attention of many more people than it is likely to get.[1]  The article author apparently lives in Canada, but for some reason has published in French, a language better known in Europe than in North America.  Furthermore, the PDF that reached me is locked, which means that the electronic text can’t simply be pasted into Google Translate, to get a quick idea of the contents.  Barriers of these kinds are unnecessary.

But the article is rather splendid. The author, Eric Cregheur, has tracked down some fascinating new evidence about the codex and its origins.

But what is the Bruce codex?  It’s a Coptic manuscript which was acquired by the Scottish explorer James Bruce in 1762 during a journey to Ethiopia in the 18th century.  It is today in the Bodleian library in Oxford, where it bears the shelfmark Bruce 96.  It contains gnostic texts, the two books of Jeu and a further mutilated text of the same kind.

When Bruce returned to London, his account of his travels was met with incredulity, and he was widely suspected of being a charlatan.  Among the anecdotes of Horace Walpole, printed in 1800 as the Walpoliana, we find the following well-known statement:

Bruce’s Travels,

Bruce’s book is both dull and dear. We join in clubs of five, each pays a guinea, draw lots who shall have it first, and the last to keep it for his patience.

Bruce’s overbearing manner has raised enmity and prejudices; and he did wrong in retailing the most wonderful parts of his book in companies. A story may be credible when attcnded with circumstances, which seems false if detached.

I was present in a large company at dinner, when Bruce was talking away. Some one asked him what musical instruments are used in Abyssinia. Bruce hesitated, not being prepared for the question, and at last said, “I think I saw one lyre there.” George Selwyn whispered his next man, “Yes; and there is one less since he left the country.”[2]

Walpole’s opinion may have been softened by his editor.  For in a letter of 1789 he writes frankly:

Mrs. Piozzi, I hear, has two volumes of Dr. Johnson’s letters ready for publication. Bruce is printing his Travels; which I suppose will prove that his narratives were fabulous, as he will scarce repeat them by the press. These, and two more volumes of Mr. Gibbon’s History, are all the literary news I know.[3]

By 1842 we read however:

The name of Bruce ought not to be passed by without a tribute to the injured memory of one whose zeal was rewarded with reproach and disbelief! How easy is the part of a sceptic! What a slight effort, yet what an air of superiority, and appearance of learning, attend the expression of a doubt! Bruce had been provokingly enterprising. Many of his readers were incredulous, because he had done what they, in the plenitude of their wisdom, conceived impossible; and mapy of those most violent in their censures had neither sufficient experience or knowledge of the subject to hazard an opinion. Envy prompted some, and fashion more, to speak of Bruce’s narrative as a tale of wonder, or a pure invention; and those who had never read his work fearlessly pronounced a censure to which others were known to assent. But it is gratifying to find that the more mature investigations of the present day have vindicated the character of this distinguished traveller; and it is to be hoped that his name will henceforward continue to be attached to the interesting monument above alluded to, as a memorial of his diligence under the most unfavourable circumstances, and as a token of his veracity. And so shall the name of Bruce be honoured in his tomb.[4]

What we want to know, however, is where did this Coptic codex come from?  Now that we know about the Nag Hammadi collection, and the Gospel of Judas, and other papyrus codices, it would be useful to know more of the source for the book.

Cregheur assembles a number of witnesses; not merely Bruce himself, but also Woide, who copied the manuscript for publication, and a certain J. R. Forster, all of whom describe the codex, all indicating that it came from Thebes, modern Luxor.  In a letter to J.D. Michaelis published in 1796, Forster writes:

Ich habe kürzlich bey Herrn Bruce einen alten koptischen Codex auf wirklichem Papyrus geschrieben gesehen. Er ist im Sahidischen Dialecte, ziemlich alt, und der Inhalt gnostisch. Er ward bey Theben aus den Ruinen in seiner Gegenwart ausgegraben. Herr Hof-Pred. Woide hat von ihm Erlaubnitz erhalten, den Codex abzuschreiben, um wenigstens die Wôrter fürs Sahidische Lexicon zu gebrauchen; denn der Inhalt ist gar nicht interessant.

I have recently seen with Mr Bruce an old Coptic codex written on real papyrus.  It is in the Sahidic dialect, quite old, and the content is gnostic.  It was excavated from the ruins at Thebes in his presence.  Dr Woide has received a commission from him to transcribe the codex, in order to use at least the words for the Sahidic lexicon, since the content is not very interesting.[5]

Anyone who looks at the Michaelis volume will admire Dr C.’s persistence in even reading the name of Bruce on that page!

After sifting all the data, Cregheur concludes:

Our witnesses allow us to sketch the early history of Bruce codex. It was acquired by James Bruce between 7 and 17 January 1769, at or near Thebes, after had been exhumed from ruins, supposedly in the presence of Bruce. We do not know what happened to the manuscript after it was purchased by Bruce. It could have been immediately sent to Europe, been left in Egypt to be recovered later by its owner, or accompanied him throughout his expedition.

In the state in which it was purchased by Bruce in 1769, the manuscript was large, very readable, had a leather cover reinforced with cartonnage, and was probably already incomplete. Perhaps some leaves were already disordered, separated from each other and mutilated. This state of affairs probably worsened due to the manipulation of the codex in the seven years which separate the acquisition of the manuscript by Bruce from the reproduction by Woide. The leather cover could also have been removed in this interval, perhaps by Bruce himself, but pieces of cartonnage still remained when Alexander Murray Bruce made an inventory of manuscripts in the early nineteenth century. That’s about all we can learn from Bruce codex for the period when it was in the hands of its purchaser.  It should only be added that Bruce offered his manuscripts in the British Museum for a sum £ 25,000, an offer that was declined.

This is a fine paper, making something solid out of snippets of literary gossip.  While we always knew that the Bruce codex was from Thebes, the statement that it came “from the ruins” is new.

  1. [1]Eric Cregheur, “Pour une nouvelle histoire de la découverte et de l’état primitif du codex Bruce (1769-1794)”, in: Journal of Coptic Studies 16 (2014).
  2. [2]Walpoliana, (1800), p.101.
  3. [3]Horace Walpole, The Correspondence of Horace Walpole, with George Montagu, Esq. … 1770-1779, p.389.
  4. [4]J.G. Wilkinson, Manners and customs of the Ancient Egyptians, vol. 2 (1842), p.231 
  5. [5]Literarischer Briefwechsel von Johann David Michaelis, vol.3, 1796, p.386.

15 thoughts on “Notes upon the modern history of the “Bruce codex”

  1. It seems that the author (Eric Crégheur) received his Ph.D. at Laval, which is a French-speaking university in Quebec, and that all his academic work has been in French. I assume he is Québécois, and like many Québécois would probably be very surprised to hear that French is “a language better known in Europe than in North America.”

  2. Only if he was being cute. It reminds me of Welsh nationalists: all the state-funded signage in Wales is in Welsh and English, but I observed that private shopkeepers don’t bother with the Welsh. It’s a little bit of politics, rather than anything real.

    The French nationalists in Quebec may wish to create a “little France” in Canada, with the connivance of sympathisers in the Canadian government; but a cynic would suspect that they all speak perfect English.

    Outside of this ghetto, my impression that French is not that well known in America. US monographs frequently fail to reference excellent French scholarship.

  3. Does it mean that French (even French who know enough of English… and people from Quebec) should stop writing in French? And Italians stop writing in Italian? And Germans in German? There were, not so long ago, the idea that some five languages or a little more (English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, at least) were expected to be understood by scholars working on Antiquity and Middle-Ages (for Byzantium, you should add Russian, which is a bit more tricky…). And that you’d better write in your own language: more accurate, and more natural. Some still stick to this policy, and I hope they will continue!

  4. My guess is that it varies. When I visited Welsh cousins in mid-Wales Welsh was clearly the first language of some of them. One of my fellow students at university was from Senegal and his English was good, but he said he normally thought in French, and if he really needed to think about things, he returned to his first language (which it was, I do not recall). I’m just reading Johan Huizinga’s Erasmus biography in its revised and expanded Dutch version – it was commissioned by an American publisher and Huizinga’s English was good but he seems to have written it in Dutch and had someone else translate in into English (though I think checking it himself) – and he was happy to revise it in Dutch and thought the result had more precision and nuance, etc.

  5. For the sake of thoroughness, I note more than one edition of Bruce’s Travels are scanned in the Internet Archive.

  6. I met some Quebecois at an internationally attended SCA event. Their French was fast and very Quebecois, so a French lady was having trouble with it. Their English was good but strongly accented with French; but they were doing medieval Scottish personas, so that made the whole affair even more interesting to hear. I thought of Mary Queen of Scots, frankly. 🙂

  7. Btw, recently heard a Christian who claims that all the Fathers of the Church and early Christian saints are myths, and that Origen never existed or wrote. He refuses to believe in his fellow Christians unless they are mentioned in pagan literature or show up in archaeology. All patristics are just medieval forgeries, blah blah blah.

    Any thoughts on how to reply to this? I confess that even secondhand, the whole idea made me too angry to think. (Especially since I think the point was that he didn’t want to think about quotes from Ignatius of Antioch that he didn’t agree with.)

  8. Sounds unlikely to actually be a Christian. I’ve encountered that idea from the odd atheist. Isn’t this Harduoin’s idea?

    I’d enquire who forged them and when. And who says so.

    The long version of Ignatius is interpolated, of course.

  9. Suburbanbanshee,

    O’Connor, in his interesting 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia article, says, “The romance of Lucian of Samosata, ‘De morte peregrini’, written in 167, bears incontestable evidence that the writer was not only familiar with the Ignatian letters, but even made use of them”, which might bind your interlocutor to at least those uses on his own terms!

  10. I should not have omitted to say, thank you for this post – lover of 18th-c. literature and history that I am, and one interested about Ethiopian Church history as well, I don’t recall ever having heard of Bruce, though once hearing a couple clicks can lead to where I can know much more – if I set myself to making the time for it…

  11. @David, thank you for your comments, and sorry for not picking up on them – I am unwell. It’s really interesting what Cregheur has picked up (and I’d probably have been kinder on his language choice if I hadn’t felt off-colour when writing, and then had to sidestep that copy-protection cack). He also analyses the manuscript, which is his real interest as he is editing the texts that it contains. It’s all valuable stuff.

    For me the interesting point is that it is yet another papyrus codex from Luxor. The hills must be full of them!

    Yes, it’s interesting to read about Bruce’s adventures!

  12. The UK is a very different situation from Canada. England is 85% of the population of the UK and the past reign of Welsh and Scottish kings more led towards their peoples’ assimilation. Canada is a binational state like Belgium or Cyprus. Quebecois are something like a quarter of the population of Canada and Montreal is more of a French than an English city. Sure, most speak English just as most English Canadians also speak French, but Quebecois do spend most of their public and private lives speaking French, the use of the language is not a deferment to localism but an everyday event.

  13. @David — Thanks a lot! You have solved a mystery as well as providing me with good info!

    I’ve long known Avram Davidson’s fantasy novels Peregrine Primus and Peregrine Secundus, and I could tell they were based on something… but the paperbacks didn’t say it was a nasty-bio by Lucian of Samosata! Well, they aren’t as good as his Virgil fantasy, The Phoenix and the Mirror, but now I know what the heck he was drawing from.

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