From my diary

I’m busy earning a living at the moment, so there is little to report.  However I happened to see a post on twitter recently about St Cuthman, an anglo-saxon saint, which sparked my interest.  All that is known about him is contained in the Acta Sanctorum volume for February (vol. 2), under February 8th, published in 1656, by coincidence during the only period of history when England was not a monarchy.  There’s a single Life in there (with the reference code BHL 2305), quite short, which I have begun to translate into English in my scanty spare moments.

Googling about St Cuthman revealed a lot of low-grade material.  There seems to be only a single article.  This is present in JSTOR, but for some reason inaccessible to me.  I’m starting to get the feeling that my JSTOR alumni access through my old university is being downgraded.  Increasingly articles are not accessible.  Luckily a friend had a copy.  This referred to endless “summaries” of the contents of the Acta Sanctorum text, but no translation.  I could wish that these busy gentlemen had translated rather than skimming and summarising.  For instance the article author seemed to think that the Acta Sanctorum contained two Lives, rather than one.  The one text was derived from two manuscripts; that was the source of his misreading.

The text in the Acta Sanctorum was signed “I.B.”.  This can only be Jean Bolland himself, the originator of the whole 350-year-long (so far!) Acta Sanctorum project.  He had access to these two manuscripts.  Looking at the modern Bollandist site, I find that they have knowledge of only two manuscripts today.  Probably these are the same two manuscripts.  One is still in the region of Rouen, as it was in Bolland’s day.  The other has migrated to Germany, to Gotha.  Neither is online unfortunately.

Now I find that translating anything is easier if I have an electronic text to hand.  It allows me to use electronic tools and lexica.  The complete Acta Sanctorum is online in electronic form at the Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon site.  Nothing on the home page suggests this, but a Google search reveals it here.  Even so it is not indexed properly – you have to click on each month, and volume, and page through it.  But it is a blessing to have!  I wish I knew more about how this text was created.  There are a tiny number of typos in it, as well as the abbreviations and ligatures present in the original printing.  But it is invaluable.  Indeed I have purchased their keystick with a copy of the site on it, in case it should ever vanish.

Websites do vanish, as does material on it.  This week somebody asked me about a passage in Photius’ Bibliotheca.  I recalled that  the translation by Rene Henry was online at, so off I trotted.  But I found that it was no longer there!  Instead the material was subdivided much, but only part of it was still there.  This is quite a loss, and I wish that I had archived it.  I found, annoyingly, that had NOT archived the site.

Another article that I read this week observed that Google is no longer a good search engine.  This chimes with my own experience.  I have long noted that, of the vast quantities of material that I have shovelled onto the web over the last 20 years, very little is returned any more.  This week I had occasion to look for a passage from the “Arabic canons of Nicaea”.  I googled the text, and found it in the end, after a bit of searching, in … the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers!  Which I have  on my site, but did not appear in the results.  Which is on the site, that digitised it, and which did not appear in the results.  In fact not a single copy of the various digital copies appeared.  It looks very much as if the Google search engine prioritises heavily on creation date, and marginalises or ignores material from longer ago.  This is terrible for us all.  Google returns a picture of the web as it is now, like a news service.  It is much less good at finding material that is there but older.

This also leaves aside the increasing evidence that Google is operating a political censorship.  Today I saw an article claiming that their algorithm is basically much like the evil new Chinese system of “social credit”, and simply omits results from different political viewpoints.  I find it quite easy to believe this.  I myself was subjected to a 12-hour twitter ban this week.  Twitter shoves an endless stream of absurd political posturing into your face, which it is very hard to avoid.  Much of it is extreme, even by the standards of modern California, the fons et origo of so much that is wrong and nearly all that is absurd.  The platform is engineered to cause people to respond.  Your behaviour is manipulated to make you do so.   Thus I was unwise enough to respond to one of these, politely but dismissively, and to my astonishment was instantly banned by twitter for expressing a view that they did not like.  Likewise this week I have observed that a couple of “military humour” pages on Facebook are being routinely subjected to harassment by the Facebook “moderators”.  One had to abandon its efforts and restart a new page.  Another discovered that it was “shadow-banned” – that Facebook had decided not to relay posts to those who had asked to see them.  Neither page has ever posted anything really objectionable, or even a fraction as salty as a military barracks would ordinarily be.  Yet they face constant interference.

I do think that we need a better search engine.  We need that older material.  Searching the web has always been an art.  One person will find something; another nothing, just through luck of choosing the right terms.  That will probably always be so.  But the material should be there.

At the moment at night I am reading my way through the Diary of a Country Parson, in five volumes.  This is the diary of James Woodforde, who was rector of Weston Longville, nine miles west of Norwich, for thirty years, until he died in 1802 at the age of 62.  By then he was in health and attitude an extremely old man.  He often refers to going to Norwich and staying in the market place in an inn called the Kings Head.  The editor was unable to locate this, and I myself know the area well and don’t know it.  But it turns out that the east side of the market place in 1800 was very different from today, when it is entirely shops.  It contained four large commercial coaching inns, each with a gateway into a long yard behind.  Indeed the street behind this area, and parallel to the market, is still called “The Back of the Inns” today on Google maps.  The Kings Head was demolished in 1813 to create Davey’s Place, which is a narrow street running from the market towards the castle.  I was able to find an 1806 drawing of the area on Wikipedia, by James Cotman, looking south, here.

Sadly the resolution is too low to zoom in on the front of the properties on the left, but I can see two inn signs in it.  One must be the Angel Inn, which stood where the eerie and beautiful Royal Arcade now stands.

In many ways the frontage of the east side – the street there was known as Gentleman’s Walk – is rather more impressive than it is today.  The inns were big, bustling enterprises, and a coach went to London almost every day.  They travelled overnight, interestingly.  There were 4 or 6 places inside the coach, and 2 places “outside” in the basket, at half-price.  Parson Woodforde and his niece travelled inside at a £1 each, while their servant Briton travelled in the basket for 10 shillings.  It looks as if Parson Woodforde almost always stayed at the Kings Head precisely because it was busy and bustling and a complete change to his quiet isolated rectory at Weston.  He liked the excitement, it seems.

Pictures of the past are invaluable.  Too many are still held behind walls of copyright and greed, but perhaps this will change as time goes by.  Let us hope so!

Share “account suspended” – anyone know what has happened?

I was just googling and I find that the Orthodox forum is unavailable.  The address brings up a message saying that its “account has been suspended”.  Does anybody know what has happened?


Philo of Byzantium, On the Seven Wonders of the World: an English translation and some notes

Approximately 50,000 Greek manuscripts survive, containing a mass of literature from the ancient and medieval period.  Among these is a curious little work, On the Seven Wonders of the WorldDe septem orbis miraculis, or peri ton hepta theamaton (Τῶν ἑπτὰ θεαμάτων ἑκάστου φήμῃ μέν). This is the first literary account of the seven wonders of the world.  Unfortunately it is largely rhetorical, rather than descriptive.[1]

There is an English translation of this work, which I will give at the end.  However I wondered what the text was and how it reached us.[2]

The transmission of our text has been discussed by Aubrey Diller.[3]  It survives in a single 9th century manuscript, Heidelberg 398 (= A),  starting on folio 56v, where it is ascribed clearly to “Philo of Byzantium”.

Heidelberg 398, f.56v.

Philo of Byzantium, or Philo Mechanicus, was a writer of the second century BC, author of some works on technology. However a study by von Rohden in 1875 showed that the attribution must be wrong.[4]  The text carefully avoids any use of “hiatus”.  This is the technical term in rhetoric for the situation where a word or syllable ending in a vowel is followed by a word or syllable starting with a vowel.  The word “hiatus” itself contains a hi-atus, for instance.  Hiatus is a normal feature of Greek, but it was avoided by the rhetoricians, and most carefully so in late antiquity.  Von Rohden therefore concluded that the author was a late antique rhetorician, and felt able to date the work even as late as the 5-6th centuries AD.  The author is therefore sometimes referred to as pseudo-Philo of Byzantium.

The work is incomplete.  There is an introduction, and there should be seven chapters.  But the text breaks off in the 6th chapter at the bottom of a page without any colophon to mark the ending. Analysis of the binding has shown that the last page begins a new quire of leaves, but that the other leaves have all been removed.  It seems that A originally contained the full text.

Heidelberg 398 f.59v, bottom – the point where the text breaks off.

The marginalia mainly consist of chapter titles.  These are in small uncials, and are probably from the renaissance Paris circle of Platonists.

A has had an exciting history.[5]  It comes from Constantinople.  In the 1530s it was in the hands of the printer, Hieronymus Froben in Basle in Switzerland.  Froben printed a couple of works from it, but then presented various manuscripts – presumably including this one – to Ottheinrich, Elector of the Palatinate (d. 1558) who founded the Palatine Library in Heidelberg.  It remained there until the Thirty Years War.  At the conclusion of the war, the manuscripts of Heidelberg were transferred to the Vatican.  In 1623 the papal agent, Leo Allatius, removed all the covers from the Heidelberg manuscripts in order to do so.  Books are heavy, and in this period were often shipped in barrels, which could be rolled.  It was then rebound in the Vatican.  There it was studied by Allatius who wrote a Latin translation, a copy of which is also in the Vatican.  A remained in the Vatican until 1798, when it was looted by the revolutionary French and transferred to Paris.  After the Napoleonic wars were over, in 1816 it returned to Heidelberg where it is today, and has recently appeared online.

There is also a 13th century copy of A, most of which is at Vatopedi on Mount Athos in Greece: Vatopedi 655.  The portion of the Vatopedi manuscript that concerns us is contained in 21 leaves which were stolen by none other than Constantine Simonides.  After attempting and failing to sell bogus manuscripts to the British Museum, he sold some genuine ones, including these leaves.  They are today in the British Library, where they are Additional Manuscript 19391.  (= B).[6]  This too is online here.  That it is no more than a copy of A may readily be seen, because it breaks off at exactly the same point as A.  There are also some renaissance copies, of no value.  One of these that is online is Vat. Barb. gr. 69.

British Library Additional 19391, fol. 12v. Start of Philo.

The text has been printed a number of times, usually as an appendage to other works.  The editio princeps was in Rome in 1640, by Leo Allatius, with parallel Latin translation.  The standard edition seems to be that of Hercher (1858),[7] from which, I find, the translation was in fact made.

Start of Hercher text.

The translation I found as an appendix in a popular paperback,[8] translated by a certain “Jean Blackwood” whom I hae been unable to identify.  I give it in full, with the introductory remarks.  There are no footnotes.

   *   *   *   *



by Philon of Byzantium

The following is a free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858.

Everyone knows of the renowned Seven Wonders of the World, but few have set eyes on them, for, in order to do so you have to arrange a long journey to the land of the Persians on the far side of the Euphrates; you have to visit Egypt; you must then change direction and go to Elis in Greece. Then you must see Halikarnassos, a city-state in Caria, and Ephesos in Ionia, and you have to sail to Rhodes, so that, being exhausted by lengthy wanderings over the Earth’s surface, and growing tired from the effort of these journeys, you finally fulfil your heart’s desire only when life is ebbing away, leaving you weak through the weight of years.

Thus, learning is a quality which is truly to be admired  and to be treasured as a great gift because, at the same time  as it gives their minds insight, it may show men, freed from the burden of travelling, the most remarkable of sights which are to be seen at home, and it designates the sight that is worthy of admiration. For the traveller who reaches these places sees them once, and as soon as he leaves, he forgets, be­cause he has not firmly grasped the delicate beauty of the works he has gazed upon, and the individual details escape his memory. Whereas he, who by selective reading has become  acquainted with a worthy sight knows the details of its form and has thus set eyes upon a complete work of art, and, be­cause these sights have been seen in his mind’s eye they remain, imprinted on his mind, each single image, never to be destroyed.

I must add something else that in no way departs from the truth. Where I have managed to describe the Seven Wonders of the World as accurately as possible, my words, surveying the scene, are associated by the listener in such a way that it may seem to him that he has looked upon them with his own eyes. For these wonders are the only things which diminish the worth and reputation of other distinguished sights, for, truly, ordinary men may see them in the same way as other sights, but they do not marvel at other sights in the same way. For beauty, like the sun, dazzles by its own brilliance and does not allow one to see the others.


The garden which is called the Hanging Garden suspends its plants in the air, having shoots which are supported away from the ground. The tree roots which hang above the ground, assuredly cover the earth and take the place of a floor. Here is a description of this work. First of all stone columns are supported on a general foundation and made firm. This is done in such a way that the engraved bases of the columns cover the whole area given over to the garden.

Then beams made from palm trees are set down in different places, separated from one another by only a small space. For palm is absolutely the only kind of wood which does not rot. It is moistened so that it will bend back after being pressed upwards by weights. Moreover it feeds the fibres and tendrils of the roots which mix with the matter in its own cells and sinews.

A vast and deep mass of earth is poured over the beams; trees are planted with their broad leaves nearly touching to help foster the Garden. There are all kinds of varieties of flowers, and, so that it will be enjoyed by all, whatever is the most delightful, agreeable and pleasant to the eyes is there. The whole of the place is ploughed like a normal field and it is no less fertile than other ground. Yet it is done in such a way that the land can be ploughed above the heads of those walking amongst the supporting columns.

Whilst the upper layer of soil is trodden on underfoot, in places the deep, lower layers remain untouched, and that which lies at the bottom remains virgin ground. The waters gush forth from lofty fountains and sink right down through the ground and are then forced up high in twists and spirals, rushing and swirling through the circuits of the pipes of cer­tain mechanical devices. And so the water having been col­lected on high in numerous ample containers irrigates the whole garden and, with its bountiful moisture, it bathes the roots of the trees which are pressed into the top layer of the ground and thus keeps the soil perpetually moist.

Here grow grasses which are perennially green, and trees whose leaves move in the breeze. The branches are made soft by constant moisture and so the leaves grow more densely. The roots, which are never removed, exude water continuously, and this circulates through the pores of the roots which are buried and pressed into the ground, keeping the trees natur­ally firm and thick. And so the cultivator, in his many ways, has created strength through nature; this certainly is a work of regal splendour giving much pleasure suspended above the heads of onlookers.


The construction of the Pyramids at Memphis is beyond the strength of men and their description is beyond belief, for they are mountains placed on top of mountains, and it is not easy for the mind to grasp how the huge masses of hewn stone could have been raised; and all have doubts concern­ing the huge force of the mechanical devices needed to bring the massive structures together.

After a quadrangular base had been laid down, those very stones needed to support the construction and keep it off the ground were interred, and, as the pyramid rises, the superstructure decreases proportionately in size and the whole work turns visibly into a pyramid, assuming a tapering shape. The whole of the work of joining the stones together has been so cleverly and elegantly accomplished that the whole monument seems to have sprung from one hewn stone. Differ­ent kinds of stone are joined together in turns, for here is pure marble whilst there is a black Ethiopian stone. The stone which they call blood-like is not present. The one that is brought from Arabia is there, changing colour, translucently fresh and green. Some take on a radiant glossy blue colour, and there are others which, like the apple tree, turn golden. Some are a purple colour, not dissimilar to those stained with the marine purple dye of sea-shells. For the rest, delight is enhanced by astonishment, excellence of artistic inspiration by admiration, and distinction by extravagance. Climbing to the top tires one as much as a real journey, and if anyone stands at the highest point and looks down, dizziness veils his sight. Regal wealth adds splendour to the very pleasing variety of the range of colours. Let fortune smile while she believes that she can touch the very stars by spending extra­vagantly. For by works of this kind, either men rise to the level of gods, or the gods come down to man.


As Kronos is Zeus’s father in heaven, so Phidias is his father in Elis. Immortal nature gave birth to the former, but the hands of Phidias, which alone have satisfied the gods, begat the latter. Blessed is Phidias who, alone, has seen the king of the world and has re-created his awesome presence for all to see. If it belittles Zeus to call him the son of Phidias, might we still not consider his mother to be Art, by which means Phidias created (Zeus’s) likeness. With this in mind Nature provided the elephant, and filled Africa with abundant herds so that Phidias might fashion their curved teeth. We honour the other Wonders of the World with our admiration, but this is the only one that we venerate. For however much a work of art is to be admired, the image of Zeus is sacro­sanct. If labour is worthy of praise, then an immortal being must truly be worthy of reverence.

O to the Grecian Age which will abound in works dedicated to the honouring of gods for many centuries to come and which has had as the creator of immortality the artist whose like has not been seen again. You have been able to show mortals the features of the gods, and whoever has looked upon them will look more soberly at the works of others. For no other has been superior to Phidias in the way he laid Olympus at his feet. For as we know that evidence is preferable to opinion, and fact to fiction, so sight is superior to hearsay.


Out to sea lies the island of Rhodes which, long ago, was submerged in the deep and which the Sun raised up to the light and demanded it as his own from the gods. Here stands the Colossus, seventy cubits high, executed in the likeness of the Sun, for it is recognized to be an effigy of the god as it bears his own special features. The artist used so much bronze for the work that there was almost a shortage of metals, for all the earth’s mines were exploited in carrying out the project.

You will remember that Zeus deluged the Rhodians with great wealth so that they might devote it to honouring the Sun as they had undertaken to produce a statue of the god that would stretch right from the earth to the sky.

The workmen fortified the statue of the Colossus from the inside by hewn stones joined together by iron bolts, and the bars which are used on the stones to bring the joins together seem to have been fashioned by the hammers of the Cyclops. Whatever part of the work remains hidden is greater than that which can be seen; for the onlooker, transfixed in admiration, can only doubt that such vast masses of bronze could have been melted down and cast, wonder by what clamps they have been held, to what kind of blows they have been subjected and what strenuous exertions have brought them into being.

A pedestal of pure marble was laid down and on this, calculating the proportion, the artist first fixed the feet of the Colossus as far as the ankle, on to which the god was to be erected, seventy cubits high. At this (foot) level the base was already greater than other statues and it was not possible to lift the rest of the statue into place above; yet there were so many people helping that the whole rose up, in one continuous movement, like the temples of the gods, as if of its own accord.

So, in order to achieve this, the artist cast the rest of the statue beforehand, and it was reassembled piece by piece, One piece was fixed to the part already cast, and a third piece was added when this was finished, and then each further part, just as it had been fashioned, was completed with the same skill. For whole parts of bronze could not be moved from the place where they were cast.

Seeing that the pieces were joined correctly, the artist en­sured that the joins and connecting rods were secured after the statue had been made even more firm by the stone laid in place to hold the work steady.

But the artist had to preserve the shape of the work in his mind for, as parts of the Colossus were finished he poured a huge quantity of earth about the base hiding that part already completed, so that he might finish the next parts from ground level. He gradually ascended to the very topmost point of his desire making a god-like image from 500 talents of bronze and 300 talents of iron, so freeing a great work of art from the bold mind of its creator; for in the world a second Sun stood face to face with the first.


Queen Semiramis created majesty and regal splendour with her immense wealth, for she paid no heed to jewels and treasure and so left behind a Wonder of the World. For she surrounded Babylon with walls, the foundations of which were 360 stadia in diameter so that running around the city ex­hausted the daily courier. But they are to be admired not only because of their size but also truly on account of the solidity of their construction and the width achieved with the materials, for the walls have been built out of baked brick and bitumen.

The height of the wall certainly exceeds fifty cubits, and truly the width of the course is such that four quadrigas can drive along them at the same time. There are numerous multi-storeyed towers stretching in an unbroken link of sufficient size to house within them a large army. For this reason the city-state is a fortress for the Persians and, gener­ally speaking, the city seems more or less self-sufficient, so many people live within its walls. Truly other states scarcely till as much land as Babylon covers with dwellings alone, and only at that place can the inhabitants walk about inside the walls.


The unique Temple of Artemis at Ephesos is the abode of gods. Whoever has gazed upon it will believe that the heavenly world of the immortals has changed places with the earth. The Giants, or Aloidae, who undertook to conquer Olympus with mountains, have now built not a temple but a dwelling fit for gods. Just as work in progress surpasses its foundation, so art, by its boldness, surpasses the work in progress.

The artist, isolated from everyone because his work was known only to him, dug trenches to an immense depth and exhausted the mountain quarries in laying his extensive foundations. A supporting structure, solid and firm, was placed down with immense sculptured columns (Atlantes) to support the heavy superstructure; initially he constructed a base raised by ten steps placed outside to serve as a platform …

(Here the manuscript ends, and the remainder of this sec­tion, as well as that covering the Mausoleum, are missing.)

   *   *   *   *

It is useful to have this translation, and very interesting to see the history of this little work.

  1. [1]G. Sarton, Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries B.C., 1993, p.26.
  2. [2]I happened to see on Twitter a splendid depiction of the Colossus of Rhodes.  This led me to seek out the literary sources, and the Wikipedia article advised me of the existence of the translation.  I purchased a copy of the paperback, which arrived this week.
  3. [3]A. Diller, The Tradition of the Minor Greek Geographers, 1952.
  4. [4]Hermann von Rohden, De mundi miraculis quaestiones selectae, Bonn 1875.  Online here. Pp. 32-43 dates Philo in the fifth or sixth century because of his rigorous avoidance of hiatus.
  5. [5]These details all from Aubrey Diller’s fascinating monograph.
  6. [6]Seven leaves were stolen by a Greek adventurer, Minoides Mynas in September 1841 and ended up in Paris, as BNF supp. gr. 443A.
  7. [7]Rudolf Hercher (ed.), Aeliani De natura animalium, Varia historia, Epistolae et Fragmenta. Porphyrii Philosophi De abstinentia et De antro Nympharum. Philonis Byzantii De septem orbis spectaculis, 1858.  Online here.  Critical notes on p.lxx (p.80 of the PDF); the text is numbered strangely; Philo is labelled p.101-5.  (p.728 of the PDF)
  8. [8]Michael Ashley, The Seven Wonders of the World, Glasgow: Fontana Paperbacks, 1980.

Isidore of Seville – on the Tironian notae

From Isidore of Seville, Etmologiae, book 1, chapter 22:


[1] Vulgares notas Ennius primus mille et centum invenit. Notarum usus erat ut, quidquid pro con[ten]tione aut [in] iudiciis diceretur, librarii scriberent conplures simul astantes, divisis inter se partibus, quot quisque verba et quo ordine exciperet. Romae primus Tullius Tiro Ciceronis libertus commentus est notas, sed tantum praepositionum.

[2] Post eum Vipsanius, Philargius, et Aquila libertus Maecenatis alius alias addiderunt. Deinde Seneca, contractu omnium digestoque et aucto numero, opus efficit in quinque milia. Notae autem dictae eo, quod verba vel syllabas praefixis characteribus notent et ad notitiam legentium revocent; quas qui didicerunt proprie iam notarii appellantur. [1]

xxii. Common shorthand signs (De notis vulgaribus)

1. Ennius first invented eleven hundred common signs. These signs were used in this way: several scribes standing by together would write down whatever was said in a trial or judgment, with the sections distributed among them so that each scribe would take down a certain number ofwords in turn. In Rome,TulliusTiro, a freedman of Cicero’s, first devised such signs, but only for prepositions.

2. After him, Vipsanius, Philargius, and Aquila, another freedman of Maecenas, added others. Then, after the total number of signs had been collected, set in order, and increased in number, Seneca produced a work with five thousand signs. They are called ‘signs’ (nota) because they would designate (notare) words and syllables by predetermined characters and recall them to the knowledge (notitia) of readers. Those who have learned these signs are properly called stenographers (notarius) today.[2]

Isidore in fact lists various sorts of notae, and some of the manuscripts of the Commentarii Notarium Tironianarum quote him on some or all of them, so it’s worth a quick list:

XXI. DE NOTIS SENTENTIARVM – Critical signs.  These are things like asterisks, the obolus, the cryphia, the diple, etc.  Things that ancient scribes put in the margins of manuscripts!

XXIII. DE NOTIS IVRIDICIS – Signs used in law.  Abbreviations used in ancient law books, like “SC” for senatus consultum, i.e. a decree of the senate.

XXIV. DE NOTIS MILITARIBVS – Military signs.  These were symbols placed on the lists or rosters of soldiers, like a T “tau” meaning “alive” or a Θ (theta, for thanatos), indicating that the soldier was killed.

XXV. DE NOTIS LITTERARVM – Epistolary signs.  Secret codes used by letter writers to indicate to each other information, while looking innocuous.

XXVI. DE NOTIS DIGITORVM – Finger signals.  Gestures of particular meaning.

This work of Isidore seems full of interesting snippets of antiquity.  It really needs to be read in paper form – trying to do so from a PDF is frustrating!

  1. [1]Via The Latin Library.  An old source, online, but still valuable.
  2. [2]S. Barney &c, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Cambridge, 2006, p.51.

An ancient handbook of short-hand: Tironian notes and the “Commentarii notarum Tironianarum”

A new article at the British Library Manuscripts blog, Emilia Henderson, “Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books“,[1], discusses an obscure ancient text, the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum, or Lexicon Tironianum.  This is a handbook of short-hand, giving the symbols with the Latin word or phrase that they represent.

Bernard Bischoff wrote:

The name covers the many layers of material that we have in the Commentarii notarum tironianarum (CNT), a list of roughly 13,000 signs with their explanations, and in examples of their practical use as shorthand in many early medieval manuscripts and charters.

According to a credible statement by Isidore of Seville, M. Tullius Tiro, a freedman of Cicero’s, was the inventor of a basic corpus of signs that made writing from dictation easier for him. Other personalities of the first century BC and of the first century ad developed and expanded the system, amongst them Seneca (probably the philosopher). To the Commentarii that have been transmitted to us special lists of signs for names and concepts were added subsequently (among them Christian ones, which must belong to the latest additions, perhaps from the fourth century).[2]

There are something like 20 manuscripts of the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum, and a good number are online.  Here are some that I was able to locate.

  • British Library Additional 21164 – Here fol. 2v begins “De notis Militaribus”, and ends with “Incipiunt Notae Senecae”, before we get the title page on fol. 3r.:
BL. Add. 21164, folio 3r.
Fol. 1r.
Fol. 1v
Geneva Latin 85, fol. 1v.
BNF lat. 7493, folio 106r.
BNF latin 8777, fol. 1v
BNF latin 8779, fol. 15r.
Vatican latin 3799, fol. 1r
Wolfenbuttel 9-8-aug-4f

All these manuscripts are from the 9th century, I believe.  They show a common motif at the beginning, the dagger.  Some give a whole page, others abbreviate it; but perhaps it suggests that they derive from a common ancestor which was laid out like this.  I read somewhere that the tironian notae are used extensively in the post-Roman Merovingian period, becoming increasingly corrupt, but are then restored at the start of the Carolingian period by the discovery of a late-antique exemplar, from which these copies derive.  Unfortunately I do not have the reference for this claim.

There is an edition of the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum available, by W. Schmitz (1893),[4] and it may found downloaded from here.  P. Legendre, Etudes tironiennes, Paris. (IV. Les manuscrits tironiens), 1907, contains a list of 21 manuscripts of the work, and is also online at here.  R.M. Sheldon, Espionage in the Ancient World, 2015, p.90 (preview here) gives a bibliography and advises the reader to look at this work:

Herbert Boge, Griechische Tachygraphie und Tironische Noten: Ein Handbuch der antiken und mittelalterlichen Schnellschrift.  Boge begins with definitions of Tachygraphy (stenography) then goes on to discuss the examples found in the Greek world from the fourth century be including the Acropolis system, the consonant tables from Delphi, and examples from the second and first century BC. He then goes on to discuss Tironian notes and Roman shorthand writing. He includes an excellent bibliography.

It is, sadly, offline; and in German, so perhaps no loss.

The tironian notae may seem an old and obscure subject.  Yet they remain in use even today, in Southern Ireland.  The nota for “et”, , looking like a small numeral seven, is in unicode.  An Irish blogger, Stan Carey, posted this use on a street sign, as well as other examples in his post, “The Tironian et (⁊) in Galway, Ireland”.

How fascinating to see such a survival!

  1. [1]12th August, 2019.
  2. [2]Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. p.80.  Preview here.
  3. [3]I did attempt to transcribe the prologue, probably not well: “Incipit de vulgaribus notis quomodo prius inventae sunt. Vulgares notas ennius primus mille & centum invenit notarum.  Usus erat repertus utquicquid procontentione aut iniudicus divisis incerse oartibus quod quisq: verba et quo ordine exciperet.  Romae primus Tullius tyro ciceronis libertus commentator est notas.  Sed tantum praepositio num; postcum tertius vipersammius philargius et aquila lib.tus mecenatis alius alias addiderunt.   Deine Seneca contractoque et aucto numero opus efficit in quique milia.  Notae autem dictae eo quod verba vel syllabas praefixis caracteribus notent, ut ad notitiam legentium revocent; quas qui didicerint. Propriae iam notarii appellantur.  Explicit prologus de vulgaribus notis.”
  4. [4]Commentarii notarum tironianarum cum prolegomenis adnotationibus criticis et exegeticis notarumque indice alphabetico : edidit Guilelmus Schmitz.

Drawings of Old St Peter’s in Arch.Cap.S.Pietro.A.64.ter

Another Vatican manuscript has come online, as I learn from @gundormr on Twitter here, and this one contains 16-17th century drawings of Old St Peter’s church in Rome. It has the rather awkward shelfmark of Arch.Cap.S.Pietro.A.64.ter, and may usually be found here, although I see tonight that the site is not working.

Here’s a small image in folio 10r, showing the courtyard outside the entrance, with annotations for the features.  A detailed list of contents is here.

On the right is the papal palace, in the middle is the fountain of the pine-cone, and ahead is the mosaic facade of the old church, behind a portico.

This is all well and good.  But the really spectacular part is if you download the image from folio 10r yourself.  The resulting .jpg file is huge – and this has an interesting effect, when you open it on your screen. You find yourself zooming in, effectively, on different parts of the courtyard.  Suddenly, we can see it!  It’s like being there:

We can see the entrance in the middle into the basilica.  That is not maximum resolution, by the way, either.

I can’t make out that much of the annotations, but it is simply wonderful to be able to do this.

Folio 12r is the inside of the basilica, and you can do exactly the same thing, and zoom in.

Well worth a look!


An unusual view of the Meta Sudans across the Piazza del Colosseo in 1930

The excellent Rome Ieri Oggi site has started posting again on Twitter, and today posted the following fascinating image from 1930:

Note the Meta Sudans in the middle.  By this date the brick stub of this ancient fountain had only a handful of years more in the world, before Mussolini demolished it.

Marvellous to see it!


From my diary

There is a certain very large text from late antiquity to which I have always wished to have access.  I don’t need to use it often, but when you do, you do.  There is indeed an English translation, itself a massive volume 18″ tall and 2 inches thick, some 650 pages.  But what I really wanted was a PDF.

A couple of months ago I decided to see if I could get an inter-library loan of the volume, with the idea of scanning it.  Such massive items tend to be treated as reference works, and hard to borrow.

But last week I got an email from my library that it was available.  I walked up to the library in the lunch hour, paid the $8 fee, and I lugged it back to the office, not without some effort.  After work I took it home.

I got my book scanner out, and began to scan it, page by page.  The page area just about fitted on the scanner.  Scanning is painful, because it is so heavy and so bulky.  Lift, turn, lower, hold… lift, turn it the other way, lower, support it while it scans…. This is hard physical work, believe me.

The effort was worse because the volume itself is cracking at the binding.  It has, quite clearly, been photocopied to death.  It was on loan from a university, and doubtless generations of students did what they had to do.  So the binding kept threatening to break, and the cover come off, with every turn of the page.  But I persisted.  Over the last three days I made progress.  This evening I completed 231 pages.

But then something made me check a certain pirate book site.  And there…. I found it.  Not once, but twice!  The first was a monochrome scan, much like my own.  This has been nicely OCR’d, bookmarked, and is simply perfect for my purposes.  The other consists of colour photographs of each opening, collected into two PDFs, clearly from some Turkish library.  Neither was there when I placed that book order.  I ought to have checked last week, before I started to scan.

My labour has been futile, it seems.  Oh well.  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand it seems a shame to stop.  But on the other hand I will get back a week or so of evenings of my life.

I have found that there was also a price to pay for such activity, at the end of a working day when you need to rest but must instead drive yourself on.  The first evening, when I scanned a long chunk, I went to bed afterwards only to experience anxiety dreams.  I dreamed that I was back at university, and that it was the first day.  But I had nothing to write on, no day book.  We were being told all sorts of things – important, vital things – and everyone else was writing notes, but I could not.  I knew that their notes would omit stuff that I needed to remember.  I woke with some relief.  It was not like this when I was scanning books for the web a decade ago.  Now I do not need to have more stressful nights.

Another thought strikes me.  It is now Saturday evening.  It is very humid and sticky, and an inconsiderate neighbour has made it impossible to open the windows by lighting a fire just upwind of me.  Now I always dismantle my laptop and external monitor, keyboard and mouse, and put them in the cupboard, so that I will not see them on Sunday.  IT is a demanding profession, and downtime is essential.  Locking away my computer is an important piece of self-care.  But Finereader 14, the scanner package, tends to go a bit funny with my Opticbook 3600 scanner.  It took a number of restarts before it all worked.  So I had intended to leave it all set up, and working.  I no longer need to do this.

It also means that I can return to blogging!

I think that I ought to give thanks, that the Lord has lifted this burden from me.  I really felt that I needed access to a copy.  Now I have it; and others also.  Good news.


“John the deacon” – just who was he?

There are several Italian authors of the Dark Ages known loosely as John the Deacon, and a google search will quickly find evidence that people get confused.  The text that I am working on, BHL 6104, is a Life of St Nicholas of Myra, in Latin, translated by “John the Deacon”.  I struggled with this, so I thought that these notes might help someone!

The first place to look is the Clavis Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Aevi Italiae (700-1000), or SCLMAI, edited by B. Valtorta and published by Sismel in Florence in 2006 in one volume.  This lists most of the following figures, all of whom left literary works, under the name of “John” or “Giovani”, some of whom are relevant, and I’ve added some notes under each.

  • Iohannes Aretinus, episcopus = Bishop John of Arezzo.

Bishop of Arezzo in the second half of the 9th century.  In 875 at the request of Pope John VIII he was part of a mission of Charles the Bald to invite him to Rome for consecration.  In July 877 he participated in a council in Ravenna called by the same pope.  He died in the summer of 900.  Author of a Latin translation of a Greek text on the ascension of Mary.

  • Iohannes Canaparius, monachus.

A monk in the monastery of Sts Boniface and Alexius on the Aventine in Rome and author of the Miracula s. Alexii.  Became abbot in 1002, and probably knew St Adalbert of Prague during his stay in Rome.  Died 1004.  Author of the Passio S. Adaberti martyris Christi.

  • Iohannes Casinensis, monachus = John of Montecassino = John the Monk (of Montecassino).  9th century.

The CSLMAI says that nothing is known of him, except that he lived at the end of the 10th c., and wrote a Passio S. Iohannis martyris.

Articles at Treccani say: John the Deacon (or John of Montecassino, or Giovanni Imonide, latin Iohannes Hymonides). – Monk of Montecassino, historian (b. ca. 852 – d. before 882). Influential at the curia of John VIII, friend of Anastasius Bibliothecarius, he composed from archival material one of the best lives of Gregory the Great. It is very likely that he was involved with the Liber pontificalis; more questionable is the attribution to him of other works, among which the so-called Cena Cypriani.  (This short note from Treccani; a much longer article with bibliography by Paolo Chiesa is here).

  • Iohannes Cluniacensis, monachus (Salernitanus) = John of Cluny, or John of Salerno = John the Monk (of Cluny / Salerno).  Also Iohannes Romanus; Iohannes Italus (!)

Born in Italy, probably in Rome, he met Odo of Cluny in 938 and became a monk.  Two years later he accompanied Odo to Rome, where he was later appointed prior of the monastery of St. Paul.  In 943 he moved to Salerno where he composed the Life of Odo, who had died in Nov. 18, 942.  Author of Sententiae Morales super Iob, and Vita S. Odonis Abbatis.

  • Iohannes Hymmonides Romanus, diaconus = John Hymmonides, or John Romanus = John the Deacon (of Rome).

The SCLMAI : Born around 825, a deacon of the church of Rome.  After the death of Pope Nicholas I (Nov. 867) he was exiled by the emperor Ludovicus II.  He became part of the entourage of Pope John VIII, and was connected to Anastasius Bibliothecarius and Gauderico di Velletri.  He planned (in vain) to continue the Historia Tripartita of Cassiodorus, and Anastasius Bibliothecarius trabslated a Greek Chronographia Tripartita to assist him.  He died around 880, certainly before 882.  He might be the author of the life of Pope Hadrian II contained in the Liber Pontificalis.  Author of the Cena Cypriani; Vita S. Clementis; Vita S. Gregorii Magni.

The confusion between this man and John of Montecassino is obvious.

  • Iohannes Mediolanensis, presbyter = John of Milan = John the Priest.

8-9th century, hagiographer.  Author of a single work on the Passio of the Virgin Mary.

  • Iohannes Neapolitanus, diaconus (and see also Guarimpotus Neapolitanus) = John of Naples = John the Deacon (of Naples).  9-10th century.  This is undoubtedly our author.

Hagiographer and translator, deacon on the church of S. Gennaro ad Diaconiam (=St Januarius) at Naples.  He was a pupil of the priest Auxilius, active in Naples ca. 896.  In 902 he took part in the translation of the relics of St Severinus to Naples, and in 906 in that of the relics of the martyr Sosius to the monastery of St Severinus of Naples.  His works are characterised in the Neapolitan school of translation from Greek by their extreme freedom and formal elegance.  He may be the same as Guarimpotus Neapolitanus, in which case Guarimpoto would have been his name before ordination.  The date of his death is unknown.  Author of: Acta XL Martyrum Sebastenorum; Acta S. Sosii; Gesta Episcoporum Neapolitanorum; Passio S. Maximi Cumanae; Translatio S. Severini Neapolim; Vita S. Euthymii Abbatis; Vita S. Nicolai.  The Life of St Nicholas was made at the age of 20 or 25 at the exhortation of the monk Athanasius, who may perhaps be identified with the Athanasiuis sent to Misenum with John to look for the relics of St. Sosius.  BHL 611-7 are epitomes of the work.  (SCLMAI; Long article with bibliography by Luigi Andrea Berto at Trecani here)

  • Iohannes Ravennas, archiepiscopus = Archbishop John of Ravenna. died. 929.  Author of 7 works.
  • Iohannes Venetus, diaconus = John the Deacon (of Venice). b. ca.940-945, d. after 1018.  Not in the SCLMAI.

Author of the Chronicon Venetum, the oldest Venetian history.  (Wikipedia article here).

We must also mention one further figure:

  • Guarimpotus Neapolitanus = Guarimpoto of Naples.  9-10th century.

Translator and hagiographer.  It is unclear whether he can be identified with “Guarimpotus Grammaticus”, author of the translation of the sermon of Cosmas Vestitor on the translation of relics of John Chrysostom; likewise with John the deacon of Naples, with whose works the author of the Passio Eustratii has strong stylistic affinities.  The name of Guarimpotus appears only in the prologue of the Passio Eustratii, so all his works are uncertain to some degree.  Author of: a lost Passio S. Blasii (possible remains in BHL 1380-1379, which may instead be by Bonitus Neapolitanus Subdiaconus); Passio S. Eustratii et IV sociorum in Armenia, BHG 646-646a, PG 116, 468-515, made at the request of Athanasius II, bishop of Naples in 875-898; Passio S. Febroniae; Passio S. Petri Alexandrini, BHL 6692-3; Vita S. Athanasii ep. Neapolitani; Translatio S. Athanasii ep. Neapolitani.

Out of these, three figures actually appear as “John the Deacon”; John Hymmonides, John of Naples, and in fact also John of Montecassino.  Following the links reveals that our boy is in fact John of Naples, translator of more than one hagiographical work from Greek.

I also found that searching for “Giovanni Diacono” produced a lot of information and some excellent bibliography.

What I had not realised was that Naples, in the 6th-9th century, was actually part of the Byzantine Empire, as the Duchy of Naples.  Its ruler held the titles of dux and magister militum.  Originally dependent on the exarchate of Ravenna, it transferred to the supervision of the Byzantine governor of Sicily after the fall of Ravenna.  But in practice it was rare for a Byzantine army to appear in Sicily, and Naples therefore remained largely independent.  It was vexed by constant Lombard raids, which devastated the countryside.  At other periods the Byzantine government sent Greek settlers to reinforce the Greek population.  The majority of the people were Latin speaking.  By around 840 the Byzantine rule had dissipated to nothing, and the Duchy ceased to feature the Byzantine emperor on its coins.  All the same, this was a bilingual environment, and there was a school of translations into Latin; including the text that we are concerned with here, the Life of St Nicholas.


Free! Database of manuscripts containing Latin Saint’s Lives – at the Bollandists

I’ve been looking for manuscripts of the “Life” of St Nicholas by John the Deacon.  In the process I have just come across something very useful.

This is the “Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Online” (although it doesn’t contain the BHL info) or Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina manuscripta (BHLms) database.  And … it is free!  You have to enter your name and email address,but then you can do what you want.

It’s hosted at the Société des Bollandistes.  Look under “online resources“.  The direct URL is here.  Click on Recherche, enter your name and email address (why?) and then you are in.

I clicked on “Trouver un texte hagiographique d’après son numéro BHL“, and entered 6104, which is the BHL number for the first part of John the Deacon’s Life.  This led to a page on the text, and then

Liste des manuscrits transmettant ce texte, décrits dans les catalogues des Bollandistes: par fonds ou par siècle.

Clicking on “fonds” – i.e. the libraries that hold the manuscripts – gave me a list ordered by library.  “siècle” gave me an even more useful list, in date order, thereby allowing me to concentrate on the earliest mss.  What I got was this:

Screen grab of the oldest manuscripts of John the deacon’s “Life of St Nicholas”

Note the statement at the top: 121 manuscripts counted in the catalogues published by the Bollandists.  That too is useful information.

The links do not lead to online manuscripts.  So it’s Google time.

Googling for “Chartres manuscrits” led me to a web page.  From this I learned that the Americans bombed Chartres in the war and destroyed half of its manuscripts, and cooked the rest.  But some survive.  A full list is here.  It turned out that the Bollandist “Ms. 68” now has the shelfmark ms.27, and … appears in the list of destroyed manuscripts.  So no luck, then.  The link to the catalogue info for it is here.

Googling for “Orleans manuscrits”, the next item, brought up a website alright: the “Aurelia – Bibliotheque numerique d’Orleans“.  I entered “342” in the search, and, among other cruft, got nothing useful.  I saw one manuscript had leading zeroes, so on a whim I tried 0342. This gave me a picture of a manuscript cover and “Views de saints et Sermons”, 342, Xe, XIe, et XII siecles”.  That looked OK, so I clicked on it and got … catalogue stuff, here.  A bit more experimenting and I found you have to click on the *image* itself.  There are facilities to download the manuscript, but unfortunately someone – a paperpusher, one fears – has limited it to 4 pages at a time.

The Life is supposedly at the start, but the very first page that one sees is damaged.  There are several references to St Nicholas tho.  It looks as if the cover was removed at some point, and the parchment is worn by being coverless for some period.  Turning the page reveals pen trials; turning again reveals a modern list of contents, and then the first page of the text (click to enlarge):

Orleans – manuscript 342, folio 6r. Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon (BHL 6104)

The note at the top of the page – “Monasterii sancti Benedicti Floriacensi” – tells us that prior to the French revolution the ms. belonged to the Benedictine abbey of Fleury.  So here is yet another manuscript online, although it took a fair bit of clicking to get it.

The Bollandist list of mnuscripts is inevitably incomplete.  I know of other manuscripts of this particular Latin text, thanks to the entry in the Clavis Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Aevi: Italiae volume, which has an entry for John the Deacon / John of Naples, and which was the source that led me to the BHL Online.  But it’s still an invaluable resource.