Less than 5% of Byzantine scientific texts have been published?

Today I came across a statistic which really shocked me.  It seems that less than 5% of Byzantine “scientific texts” have been printed, never mind translated.

The phrase “scientific texts” would include technical texts which give practical instruction, but also the philosophical texts that discuss what would today be scientific theories.  It would be interesting to know how the ancients, and indeed the Byzantines, related the two.  We are often told of the gap between philosophy and technology in antiquity; yet we have writers like Hero of Alexandria doing both.

The statistic is by Maria Mavroudi, who writes:

The treatment of Byzantine science has fared equally poorly in modern scholarship… It is much more important to investigate the pertinent primary sources. In the case of Byzantium, this would require a major editorial effort because less than 5 percent of its surviving scientific and philosophical production has been published.[43]

43. There is no “official” statistic on this; 5 percent represents my estimate through acquaintance with important manuscript catalogs and published texts (surveyed in Mavroudi, “Occult Science and Society in Byzantium,” 39–46) as well as Byzantine manuscripts. It would be possible to recover Byzantine philosophy and science (as well as their Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew counterparts) by publishing not only treatises composed during the Byzantine period but also the marginal annotations made by Byzantine readers in important manuscripts of ancient philosophical and scientific texts.[1]

Obviously the figure of 5% is an estimate only.  But I’m sure Dr M. knows better than most people.

Why is the figure so low?  I would guess that there is a lack of scholars capable of doing the work – it requires getting familiar with the scientific area of knowledge, and specialist vocabulary, as well as having excellent Byzantine Greek.  But I am told that it is possible to cram in such information in a few sessions.[2]  If so, it is a pity that our universities do not encourage students to do so, rather than fruitlessly retranslating the same few Greek texts.

Regular readers will be aware that I have written a little about ancient alchemical texts, like those by Stephen of Alexandria.  Apparently Matteo Martelli, Gerasmios Marianos, Olivier Dufault, and Michèle Mertens are the scholars doing good work on Byzantine alchemy these days.  It is good that work is being done.  But limited access to primary sources must mean limited work.

All this sort of material could, in principle, give us more knowledge of antiquity – although I found that astrological texts seldom did so, when I obtained a few translations.

But … it is part of the heritage of mankind.  Our first duty to the future is to transmit what we have received.  Can’t someone find a rich Greek shipowner to fund the printing of all this stuff?  How much could it cost, to type it up and put it online?  It is, after all, Greek heritage.  Would the excellent Stavros Niarchos be interested?

  1. [1]Maria Mavroudi, “Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic during the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition”, Speculum 90 (2015), 38.  The whole article deserves attention.
  2. [2]I owe my knowledge of the Mavroudi paper, and indeed much else in this post, to tweets this evening by a rather unstable female PhD student studying Byzantine alchemy.  Sadly I was only able to obtain a very limited amount of information from her.  This was rather a pity, for I was very interested in this niche of academia, and how the problem of accessing technical literature might be overcome.  It is best that I do not name her, of course.  She also told me that existing editions and translations are not very good.

18 thoughts on “Less than 5% of Byzantine scientific texts have been published?

  1. Your readers might like to know that the The Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium is about to appear which has chapters on science, astronomy, alchemy etc. Interest in Byzantine philosophy has taken off in recent years with several major publications and more on the way.

    Dr Ken Parry
    Senior Research Fellow
    President of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies
    Department of Ancient History
    Faculty of Arts
    Macquarie University
    Sydney NSW 2109

  2. Maybe the formula for Greek fire is waiting to be discovered in a neglected manuscript.

  3. Interesting. Just to clarify, does the 5% figure mean 5% of manuscripts, or 5% of works (allowing for the fact that some works appear in multiple manuscript copies)? And by “published”, does Maria Mavroudi mean in a modern, typeset edition with critical apparatus, or in facsimile?

  4. Fascinating, thanks Roger. I suspect the main problems are to do with information and access: first, no one can identify a work to be translated until the MS/MSS it’s found in have been properly catalogued (i.e. the contents have been described). And second, even when a work has been described, if it is only available in a unique MS, and that MS hasn’t been scanned, then work to prepare an edition would require physically attending the holding institution for weeks or months at a time, which for most potential scholars isn’t possible, especially when the institution is in a distant country. The fastest way to break through these barriers, it strikes me, is a) to massively step up the scale of scanning, and b) crowd-source the job of describing them, using simplified but standardized palaeographic principles. Historians of science with the appropriate backgrounds could then identify and prioritize the most important works for publication. A project requiring a *lot* of money and expertise. Where’s a friendly Greek shipping tycoon when you need one?

  5. I am a professional astronomer and researcher with expertise in astronomy and optics. I also have good knowledge of mathematics and some other related fields. If anyone is interested to take up this project, I am happy to provide support on any issues I have knowledge of. I am fluent in English and modern Greek, but my understanding of Hellenistic and medieval Greek is limited. Please leave a comment if you are interested.

  6. Well, Stavros Niarchos died 20 years ago or so, his son a few years later, it is his foundation that is doing the good work. Byzantine studies tend to be an afterthought compared to classical studies, for the same reasons that in English the word “Byzantine” has the meaning of needlessly complicated. Byzantine Greeks wrote mostly in Attic, so you could just use the scholars from the classical departments. It is more an issue of care than anything else, simply put philologists are not quite interested in technical texts and engineers are not likely to be able to manage ancient Greek that well. I remember from BMCR a review of the editio princeps of a philosophical treatise by Psellos only 5 or so years ago, and best of all it already had literature based on people that only studied the manuscripts. I also remember 3 or 4 years ago a Byzantine technical treatise on shipbuilding being published, and it was news in the Greek electronic press

  7. Hmm… Is there a good bibliography of catalogues of Byzantine MSS.? Catalogues can, of course, tell a lot or a little, or even be misleading, but they are a handy place to start… I wonder what the implications are of Maria Mavroudi’s apparent contrast of catalogues and “Byzantine manuscripts”? Are there lots of uncatalogued MSS.? Are they at least accessioned, wherever they find themselves? But then, how accessible are such accession catalogues?

    The title of both this article of hers and the book cited in the quotation sound very interesting!

    Quite tangentially, but not uninterestingly:


  8. Thank you @Jonathan. I’m sure that you are right. I must apologise; for some unknown reason your comments ended up in spam. I have approved them and deleted the duplicate!

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