From my diary

Not much is happening.  The mundane “business” of living has taken over my life.  I’ve barely been able to keep up with correspondence. I apologise to those who had to wait for replies.

I had intended to post the poems for June, from the Chronography of 354, at the start of the month.  I had a few moments today and put the post together.  In future I must remember NOT to post translations done in a hurry.  I’ve been caught before like this, making awful errors out of sheer inattention, just trying to keep up.

Better news is that a kind correspondent sent me the first English translation of a letter by Severus Sebokht, the 7th century Syriac scientific writer.  It looks very good.  I’ve offered a few editorial suggestions, and I hope to be able to post it here in a few weeks.  It is very interesting!

On the other hand I’ve been unable to do any of the items mentioned in my last post about John the Deacon, two weeks ago.  In fact I’m just grateful that I did make a TODO list then.  If I had not, I am sure that I would not remember them now.

Isn’t it frustrating, when you plan to work, but cannot?  But it seems to be the nature of life.  The academic finds himself bogged down in pointless but unavoidable administration.  The amateur is always being called away.  The novelist never gets that much time at the typewriter.  Adam’s curse operates relentlessly to blight what we think of as our real lives.  The time today that I might have spent usefully was instead spent supervising a plasterer.  Thus our lives vanish.

It was J.R.R. Tolkien in “Leaf by Niggle” who showed me how this might be intentional, and indeed providential.  In the story, Niggle is continually hampered in his attempts to paint a landscape by the calls of his needy neighbour, Mr Parish, which in the end bring about Niggle’s death.  After death, he finds his vision realised in a real landscape.  But to his surprise, he finds that the needs of Parish brought out his best work:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but-he was using the word quite literally.

He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful-and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle style-were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.

May it be so for all of us, in whatever we do.


The June Poems in the Chronography of 354

Once again only a single manuscript of the Chronography contains an image for this month.  This is MS Vienna 3146, which never contains the text of the poems, only the pictures. So for the poems, once again we are reliant on other, unillustrated, manuscripts, or the indirect tradition.

Here is the 4-line poem (tetrastich):

Nudus membra dehinc solares respicit horas
Iunius ac Phoebum flectere monstrat iter.
Lampas maturas Cereris designat aristas
floralisque fugas lilia fusa docent.

June unclad then views the sundial’s time,
And shows that the sun is changing its course. Phoebus reveals that its path is changing.

The Lamp-festival marks Ceres’ ripe ears of corn,
And the scattered lily-petals show the fading of the flower.

“Phoebus” here means the sun. The reference to “Lampas”, a festival with torches on the solstice is also attested in the ps.Chrysostom, De solstitiis et aequinoctibus (translated elsewhere on this site), the “dies lampadarum” or “day of torches”, or, more briefly, “lampas”, “the torch”.

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

Iunius ipse sui causam tibi nominis edit
praegravida attollens fertilitate sata.

June itself gives you the reason for its name,
Extolling having brought forth abundant fruitfulness.

Again the image is only preserved in the 16th century Vienna manuscript 3416, folio 25 (online here):

From Divjak and Wischmeyer, I learn that the depiction is of a naked youth carrying a torch, symbolising the solstice, a sundial on a pillar, and – indicating the harvest – a sickle, a basket of fruit, and a plant.

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


From my diary – thoughts about the text of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas

I have now scanned in the text of Corsi’s edition of John the Deacon, and found that – as he says – it is really a transcription of the Berlin manuscript, with better punctuation, plus a collation with the 1751 Falconius edition. He didn’t look at the Mombritius or Mai editions.

But that’s just fine.  It means that we can do an electronic comparison of Corsi’s text – the Berlin manuscript – with the other three editions – Falconius, Mai and Mombritius.

When I compare Falconius with Corsi, using dwdiff and dwdiff viewer that I wrote, the initial differences are small:

Small differences between Falconius and Corsi

But then when you look at chapter 12, and 13, the comparison goes nuts.  These are not the same text, basically:

Massive differences between the Falconius edition and Corsi's edition

In fact Corsi himself says the same: he didn’t bother to give an apparatus.

On the other hand if I compare the Mombritius (1498) edition with Corsi, at once we see that we’re dealing with the same text:

Small differences between Mombritius and Corsi in chapter 12

This is very useful, although a little bit annoying in that I have already translated chapters 12 and 13 from Falconius.  So there are now a few things to do, focusing on chapters 12 and 13:

  • Mark up the manuscript print-outs to indicate exactly where chapter 12 and 13 appear, and see which version of the text is contained in each.
  • Look at the two Vatican manuscripts that Falconius used, find chapters 12 and 13, and see if these reflect Falconius’ text, or Corsi’s.  I have an idea that they will in fact reflect that of Corsi.  Falconius used a lectionary from Naples, but the Naples manuscripts are not online.  There is clearly an article to be written on what exactly Falconius did, when he produced his edition, but not by me.

In the mean time I have been scanning the material in the Falconius edition which he himself states is not genuine (!) but from the Life of St Nicholas of Sion.  I’m correcting the OCR in Finereader 15 now, and he’s quite right – the chapters all refer explicitly to Sion monastery.

Once I have an electronic text of this, I can search it for words found elsewhere.  At least I will be able to identify *some* Nicholas of Sion material.

Of course this leads to the question of where the Life of St Nicholas of Sion might be found.  The Greek Life has been edited, and there is a 1984 translation into English by Sevcenko.  It might be worth my while to lay hands on this, although no copies are for sale.  But… what about the Latin Life?  Is there one?  Has any work been done on this?  Do I really want to find out?!

The original project was to produce a translation of the Life, as made by John the Deacon.  I don’t want to lose sight of this.  It is clear that Falconius has mixed in stuff which does not really belong to the Life of Nicholas of Myra.

Just to digress a moment, I was reflecting that all this is rather more serious than the “difficulties” of biblical critics, which seem to concentrate on a single word.  This is indeed what text criticism was devised for.

I’ve also been thinking about the dwdiff utility.  It seems merely to be a wrapper around something called wdiff, which itself is a wrapper around the standard tool diff, made by splitting the text into two files of words, and processing the output.  But unlike dwdiff, wdiff exists in a Windows version!  So I may go and investigate that.  It would be handy to avoid popping open a Ubuntu window every time I compare a text.

Lots to do.  I could use a few solid days on this, but, as ever, I can only do stuff in short bursts.  Still… lots to do!


From my diary

It is a very long time since I have had to order a journal article through my local library.  The price of doing so became so enormous that it was impossible.  But a few weeks ago I realised that I really did need a copy of the following article:

P. Corsi, “La ‘‘Vita” di San Nicola e un codice della versione di Giovanni Diacono”, in: Nicolaus: Rivista di teologia ecumenico–patristica, VII/2 (1979), pp. 359-380.

Today an email advised me that it had arrived, and asked me to drive into town and collect it.  This I did.  These days the library staff are mainly volunteers, and they were excited at receiving something so unusual.  I didn’t even have to give my name, nor the details of the paper!

In reality there was no good reason why the article was printed off and sent on paper.  It could have been emailed as a PDF.  But the process is a legacy of the old system, that still existed in the late 90s, whereby journal articles could be ordered at any library.  Everything about the library service has worsened since, but at least this still exists.

Tomorrow I shall scan the article in, and begin working with it.  But not today.


From My Diary

My apologies for the silence.  My central heating died the final death last week, after 32 years, and I’ve been getting a new boiler installed.  Anything major like that takes over your life, really it does.  The new boiler is now up and running, I can heat my house and my hot water once more.  All that remains is to make the inevitable complaint about shoddy workmanship, which I have done.  Luckily I am quite good at making complaints to companies.  It is truly an art.  Meanwhile my study will remain piled high with household belongings.

As I can, I’m still working on the translation of John the Deacon.  A couple of very difficult passages are starting to resolve themselves.  I made use of a Latin form on Reddit to discuss one of them, and I think it was very helpful.

I’ve continued to hunt for manuscripts.  It’s actually tiring and time-consuming to do so.  I can only manage a couple each day.  But I have gathered a few of the oldest manuscripts.

In the process I have discovered a problem.  It seems that a chap called Usuard, a 9th century monk of St. Germains-des-Près about whom I know nothing, compiled a martyrology.  In it he included the opening bits of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas, although why I cannot tell.  What this means is that there are copious manuscripts of Usuard’s Martyrology out there, a whole separate branch of text transmission.  I know there are 150+ manuscripts of John.  I can’t seriously work on that many.

A kind correspondent draws my attention to a user-contributed collection of Syriac and East Orthodox books in various languages that has appeared at  It’s here:  This seems to be the personal library of George Kiraz, the genius behind online Syriac studies, who has done so much for Syriac.  It seems that he is retiring.

One exciting item in the collection is both volumes of the SEERI English translation of the Demonstrations of Aphrahat.  Grab yours now!

I remember the two volumes, although I no longer possess them in physical form.  I ordered them from SEERI in India.  The paper quality was very poor, but it was a delight to receive them!  They will reach many more people in PDF, tho.

The enormous pile of papers/junk on my dining room table also migrated into the study during the last few days.  While purging this, I came across a note to myself: “Remember to Live”.  It’s too easy for the rubbish stuff to crowd out everything that brings joy into our lives.  We have to schedule the good stuff; not just leave it until “all the rest is done”, for that will never happen.

Earlier this week I did write a lengthy blog post on IIIF, the API for accessing manuscripts online.  It’s a good article, although not quite complete, and I was going to do a second article with sample code.  I worked out what IIIF is, in practical terms, for  a programmer user.  But on reflection I think it might be premature to post it.  Nobody needs people running scripts against library websites.  Libraries are really not geared up yet to handle being API servers.  Such scripts will most likely crash the sites.  The easier you make it to use this facility, the more likely that libraries will simply not implement it.

In techie jargon, IIIF is actually a REST interface.  I spent the last few years of my career writing RESTful webservices – and clients – so it was all eerily familiar territory.  I did a great deal of work with financial webservices, which tended to call banking APIs.  These had to authenticate payments, so there was a pattern of doing things.  I imagine IIIF will have to evolve similar patterns in order to allow scholars to contribute annotations to manuscripts.

But access to manuscripts over an API is emphatically the right way forward.  We will see more of this over the next few years.

I do not regret retiring.  Yesterday I idly read over the recent news stories on a freelancing website, and the situation in the industry sounded horrific.  I am very glad to be out!

Back to John.



Finding and downloading medieval manuscripts online that you can print

In my last post, I realise that I did something that I always find infuriating – I assumed stuff.  I started up the ladder, but omitted the first step.  Here’s a quick post on stuff you have to do first, then.

Once you decide to edit a text which has never received a critical edition, then you need to find some manuscripts that you can start work with.  You may have a list of manuscripts, but probably you don’t.

I’m working on the Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon.  This is a Latin hagiographical text, so it has an entry in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (=BHL), which you can download from  This will give you the BHL number for your text, and its opening and closing words (= incipit and explicit).

In my case, there are three sections to the text, with numbers BHL 6104, 6105 and 6106.  There is also a mess of other Nicholas stuff, which might be mixed up with what I want.  So I have used Adobe Acrobat Pro and extracted the relevant pages from the BHL, and I will print this as a “guide to Latin Nicholas texts”, to keep by my elbow while looking at the manuscripts.

The next stop is the Bollandists site.  This has the “Bibliographica Hagiographica Latina Online” database.  Hit “recherche”, tell them your name and email – nothing bad will happen – and you get the main search page.  I hit the “Trouver un texte hagiographique d’après son numéro BHL” link, which asks me for the BHL number.  When you put it in, you can get a list of manuscripts, ordered by century, or “fond” – i.e. library.  It looks like this:

BHLO search for BHL 6104

Then begins the deeply nasty task of discovering which of these are online, if any.  I won’t cover that here.  You have to find library sites and go and look.  But the list does tell you the folio numbers, which is a great help, since often library catalogues do not bother.

In order to print out a manuscript, you need to have it on your disk.  Some libraries allow you to download a PDF of the whole manuscript.  Many more are afraid, and restrict you to looking at images through their useless online viewer.  But some of these do allow download of an individual page.  So you can do something, although very slowly and painfully.

The best source of manuscripts to download is the Bibliothèque Nationale Français, the French National Library in Paris.  These guys are streets ahead.  On the other hand, you have to search their site and find them manuscripts.  The Vatican give you a single page with all the manuscripts available for the “Barberini” collection, and you click on the link.  But you can’t download any, so they’re useless for our purpose.

There are downloadable manuscripts at the BNF, but also there are a good number of downloadable mss at the Bavarian State Library in Munich, the BSB.

The BNF make you search.  A trick someone told me – if the number is reasonably long – 18303, for instance – just type it in the search box at, and hit search.  Down the left, you can restrict the hits to “Manucripts”, language = Latin, and before 1500, and you find two hits.

Above we have manuscript 989. Using this technique does find BNF lat. 989.  You have to sift through 16 Latin results, although for some reason they don’t show the shelfmark (!).  You spy “Vitae sanctorum”, and le voila!  The shelfmark is hidden in some of the catalogue information.  And then you can download it to disk.

Then back to the Bollandist list, and go and find f.54r, which is online PDF page 121.  Again I found Adobe Acrobat Pro useful, so I could bookmark the start and end of the text.  Once I had done this, I used Acrobat Pro to export the pages I wanted, and so I ended up with a much smaller PDF containing only the text that I intended to print.

So far I have 10 manuscripts on disk.  I’ve extracted the text from a couple.  The third manuscript was entirely St Nicholas, so I didn’t need to.

Downloaded MSS in Windows Explorer

I’m doing the printing by trial and error.  One manuscript had text in huge letters on small pages.  So I printed the images 4 to a page.  One manuscript from the BSB was a scan of a microfilm.  Interestingly that printed really well – better than the colour manuscripts.

The other factor?  Make sure you have enough ink in your printer.  Part way through I ran out.  Luckily I was able to get more from a shop around the corner!


Printing out medieval manuscripts in preparation for editing

At the start of my working life, fresh out of university, I was trained as a computer programmer and then assigned to a maintenance project.  This involved doing bug-fixes and small enhancements to an already rather elderly system, written in a near-obsolete language, and running on an IBM mainframe.  If I tell you that the annual run required the creation of a punched card, to be fed into a card-reader, you will see how obsolete it was.  I can still remember my first boss creating the card using a magnificent Hollerith brass card-punch.  It was, by then, a museum piece.

From this I learned a very great deal about the right way – and the wrong way – to work on a large software project.  I did quite a few contracts, later in my career, which involved similar situations, and it helped a lot at interview that I had that experience.  Some of the lessons learned were still of use to me, right at the end of my career.

One such lesson was that, when faced with a big piece of code, hundreds or thousands of lines in length, it was best to print it out.  This was easier with the massive high-speed printers attached to the IBM mainframes, although it could take hours before the print was brought up by the operators.  Once you had this before you, a selection of coloured ballpoint pens were your friend.  You could draw all over it.  You could underline and highlight bits.  You could see, for the first time, the structure of the whole monster.

You cannot master a serious size document on a computer screen that gives you 80 lines of text at most.  The human mind will not take it in.

I still used this technique occasionally in my later years.  I seem to remember sitting in an office in Cambridge, printing out code using Word and a laser printer, while my colleagues looked on in bemusement or embarrassment.  This faded once they saw the results.  They had brought me in to solve an impossible performance problem.  I fixed it in a week.

Medieval manuscripts are long wodges of text.  It is really quite hard to see them as a whole.  This makes them rather similar to software modules.  So… let’s try the same technique!

This evening I have printed off three manuscripts on my slow home Canon inkjet printer.  I also printed the text of the Falconius edition which I am using as a reference.

The next step will be to mark up the chapters in each.  Then, I hope, it will be possible to work with them!

Wish me luck!


Getting Started With Collatex

Collatex seems to be the standard collation tool.  Unfortunately I don’t much care for it.  Also interestingly, the web site does not actually tell you how to run it locally!  So here’s a quick note.

Collatext is a Java program, so you must have a Java Runtime Environment (JRE) installed, for version 8 or higher.  I think Windows 10 comes with a JRE anyway, but I can’t tell because long ago I set up a Java development environment which overrides such things.

You download the .jar file for Collatex from here.  Download it somewhere convenient, such as your home directory c:\users\Yourname.

Then hit the Start key, type cmd.exe, and open a command window.  By default this will start in that same directory.

Then run the following command in the command window.

java -jar collatex/collatex-tools-1.8-SNAPSHOT.jar -S

This starts a web server, on port 7369, with error messages to that command window.  (If you just want to start the server and close the window, do “start java …”).

You can then access the GUI interface in your browser on localhost:7369.  This is the same interface as the “Demo” link on the Collatex website.  You can load witnesses, and see the graphical results.

I think it’s best for collating a few sentences.  It’s not very friendly for large quantities of text.



A way to compare two early-modern editions of a Latin text

There are three early modern editions of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  These are the Mombritius (1498), Falconius (1751) and Mai (1830-ish) editions.  I have already used Abbyy Finereader 15 to create a word document for each containing the electronic text.

But how to compare these?  I took a look at Juxta but did not like it, and this anyway is ceasing to be available.  For Collatex I have only been able to use the online version, and I find the output tiring.  But Collatex does allow you to compare more than two witnesses.

The basic problem is that most comparison tools operate on a line-by-line basis.  But in a printed edition the line-breaks are arbitrary.  We just don’t care about them.  I have not found a way to get the Unix diff utility to ignore line breaks.

Today I discovered the existence of dwdiff, available here.  This can do this quite effectively, as this article makes clear.  The downside is that dwdiff is not available for Windows; only for MacOS X, and for Ubuntu Linux.

Fortunately I installed the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) on my Windows 10 PC some time back, with Ubuntu as the Linux variant.    So all I had to do was hit the Start key, and type Ubuntu, then click the App that appeared.  Lo and behold, a Linux Bash-shell command line box appeared.

First, I needed to update Ubuntu; and then install dwdiff.  Finally I ran the man command for dwdiff, to check the installation had worked:

sudo apt-get update –y
sudo apt-get install -y dwdiff
man dwdiff

I then tested it out.  I created the text files in the article linked earlier.  Then I needed to copy them into the WSL area.  Because I have never really used the WSL, I was a bit unsure how to find the “home” directory.  But at the Bash shell, you just type this to get Windows Explorer, and then you can copy files using Windows drag and drop:

explorer.exe .

The space and dot are essential.  This opened an explorer window on “\\wsl$\Ubuntu-20.04\home\roger” (??), and I could get on.  I ran the command:

dwdiff draft1.txt draft2.txt

And got the output, which was a bit of tech gobbledegook:

[-To start with, you-]{+You+} may need to install Tomboy, since it's not yet part of the
stable GNOME release. Most recent distros should have Tomboy packages
available, though they may not be installed by default. On Ubuntu,
run apt-get install tomboy, which should pull down all the necessary [-dependencies ---]
{+dependencies,+} including Mono, if you don't have it installed already.

The [-…] stuff is the value in the first file; the {+…} is the different text in the second file.  Other text is common.

There were also some useful options:

  • dwdiff -c draft1.txt draft2.txt added colours to the output.
  • dwdiff –ignore-case file1 file2 made it treat both files as lower case.
  • dwdiff –no-common file1 file2 caused it to omit the common text.

So I thought I’d have a go.

First I went into word and saved each file as a .txt file.  I didn’t fiddle with any options.  This gave me a mombritius.txt, a falconius.txt and a mai.txt.

I copied these to the WSL “home”, and I ran dwdiff on the two of them like this:

dwdiff falconius.txt mombritius.txt --no-common -i > op.txt

The files are fairly big, so the output was piped to a new file, op.txt.  This I opened, in Windows, using the free programmer tool, Notepad++.

The results were interesting, but I found that there were too many useless matches.  A lot of these were punctuation.  In other cases it was as simple as “cujus” versus “cuius”.

So I opened my falconius.txt in Notepad++ and using Ctrl-H globally replaced the punctuation by a space: the full-stop (.), the colon (:), semi-colon(;), question-mark (?), and two different sorts of brackets – () and [].  Then I saved.

I also changed all the text to lower case (Edit | Convert Case to| lower).

I then changed all the “v” to a “u” and all the “j” to an “i”.

And then, most importantly, I saved the file!  I did the same with the Mombritius.txt file.

Then I ran the command again, and piped the results to a text file.  (I found that if I included the common text, it was far easier to work with.)

dwdiff falconius.txt mombritius.txt > myop2.txt

Then I opened myop2.txt in Notepad++.

This produced excellent results.  The only problem was that the result, in myop2.txt, was on very long lines.  But this could easily be fixed in Notepad++ with View | Word Wrap.

The result looked as follows:

Output from dwdiff
Falconius edition vs Mombritius edition

The “-[]” stuff was Falconius only, the “+{}” was Mombritius.  (I have no idea why chapter 2 is indented).

That, I think, is rather useful.  It’s not desperately easy to read – it really needs a GUI interface, that colours the two kinds of text.  But that would be fairly easy to knock up in Visual Basic, I think.  I might try doing that.

Something not visible in the screen shot was in chapter 13, where the text really gets different.  Also not visible in the screen grab – but very visible in the file – is the end, where there is a long chunk of additional (but spurious) text at the end of the Mombritius.

Here by the way is the “no-common” output from the same exercise (with my note on lines 1-2)

dwdiff no-common output

This is quite useful as far as it goes.  There are some things about this which are less than ideal:

  • Using Linux.  Nobody but geeks has Linux.
  • Using an oddball command like dwdiff, instead of a standard utility.  What happens if this ceases to be supported?
  • The output does not display the input.  Rather it displays the text, all lower case, no “j” and “v”, no punctuation.  This makes it harder to relate to the original text.
  • It’s all very techy stuff.  No normal person uses command-line tools and Notepad++.
  • The output is still hard to read – a GUI is needed.
  • Because it relies on both Linux and Windows tools, it’s rather ugly.

Surely a windows tool with a GUI that does it all could be produced?

The source code for dwdiff is available, but my urge to attempt to port a linux C++ command line utility to windows is zero.  If there was a Windows version, that would help a lot.

Maybe this afternoon I will have a play with Visual Basic and see if I can get that output file to display in colour?


From my diary

Back to John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.

I’ve now completely retranslated chapter 1, the prologue, which I made an attempt at last year.  I’ve been comparing the text of the Falconius (1751) edition, which I am translating, with the Mombritius (1498) and the Mai (1820-ish) editions, and finding small differences, and noting them.

Over the last week I started downloading copies of manuscripts from the Bibliotheque Nationale Francais site, Gallica.  I’ve been bookmarking the start of John the Deacon, and looking at two places, one at the start and one at the end of the chapter.  I’m seeing variation alright.  But many of these manuscripts are probably all closely related.  I now have 9 manuscripts on disk, 2 of which do not contain chapter 1.

I’ve got three different lists of manuscripts.  The Bollandists list 121, and there are clearly more.  I don’t know how many are online – possibly around 20, I would guess.

Just finding online manuscripts by shelfmark is hard.  I have discovered the Biblissima site, and am using this.

It’s very helpful that the BNF allow downloads.  Less helpful are sites like the Vatican that force you to use a crummy viewer.

Ideally I could collect manuscripts using my mobile phone while lying on the sofa.  In actual practice it is quite hard work just to collect them, even using the PC.  But I am learning all the time.