They walk among us

Yesterday the removal men emptied my old house and brought all the contents to the new.  This included many bags full of books.  My library is not that large, and most of it is novels.  For I usually prefer to have scholarly materials in PDF form.

On seeing the shelves set up to receive them, one of the men said, rather than asked, “You haven’t read all these books, have you.”

I told him that indeed I had, and more than once.  I do not keep books that I will never read again.

He said nothing, but disbelief emanated from him.  Later I heard one of his workmates ask him if he had ever read a book, and he freely admitted that he never had.

So much that we take for granted is not true.  We live, surrounded by a vast number of people for whom the life of the mind is not merely something that they do not participate in, but it is something that they do not even believe in, or believe that anybody else does.  It’s just a way of showing off, or something.

Such people are very many in number, and probably the overwhelming majority of those whom we meet in life.

Are we perhaps the aliens, then?


From my diary

It is day 14 of my house move, but I am still busy moving the accumulation of 24 years.  Most of my books are still at the old house, and 5 big book cases that I made when I was young.  I was busy removing books from the shelves yesterday.  Today my back has informed me that I won’t be doing any more of that for a while!   But I have bowed to the inevitable and asked a firm to quote for packing and moving everything still left in the house.  Nor will that be the end of the matter, since the old house must then be readied for letting, with various necessary works.  So my time is  more than fully occupied.

Looking through the books, pulling off the shelves and into bags, is an interesting process.  Do I still need this book?  Or this one?  The 14 volumes of the Wheel of Time novels – will I ever reread these?  What about this three-volume history of the Church of England?  I doubt that I will ever read the Three Musketeers again – but that copy came from my grandmother.  I never read any C. S. Lewis these days – his work has entered into my soul forever – but those little yellow paperbacks I bought at university from my slender grant money.  How can I let those go?  Will I return to Arabic Christian studies?  If not, do I need that five-volume copy of Graf, obtained at some cost and labour?

The question of what to do with the books is one that confronts every reading man on his retirement.  Doubtless I shall keep too many, and, when I die, my executor will call a house-clearance company and they will go off to a charity shop.

Yet I don’t really want to get rid of books.  I just wish they could vanish into some null-space area until called for, rather than occupying floor and wall space.  If Doctor Who ever decides to monetise his Tardis, I guarantee that a few of us will be very interested in this “larger on the inside” technology!

In a way, Kindle allows us to do that.  I have a library of novels on my smartphone, so I do not need to have them in physical form.

But I don’t really like Kindle.  Legally you don’t own your e-books.  Amazon take the high-handed stance that, on your death, you can’t bequeath them.  So really you just have a lease.  In fact I don’t trust our tech corporations one bit.  They could delete the book.  They could “suspend” access, as a means of political control.  This may sound paranoid, but I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.

Even worse, electronic materials can be altered silently.  What if I go to read a book and find that it has been bowdlerised, not of obscenity but of truth?

Only yesterday I came across an example, when I consulted the NRSV of 1 Cor. 6:9-10 on the mighty Bible Gateway website and found that it had changed.  The text did not read as I remembered.

On investigation, I found that it really had changed. The NRSV is not public property, as bible translations should be.  It is owned by some group of decaying churches who have decided to remove the biblical condemnation of a certain vice.  And so it has come to pass!  The text is changed, a cynical footnote, “Meaning of Gk uncertain” is added, and that is that.  The bible websites have already been updated.  No-one can see what the old text was.  No doubt the other versions will be altered also, to conform.  Oldies will marvel, but young folk will not know that it ever said anything different.

The “KJV-only” cranks always claimed that the modern versions were deliberately corrupted.  It is sobering to see a text-book example, proving them right.

The next question that springs to mind is even worse. Is this just the start, or is this rather the endpoint of a long process of deliberate interference?

How far back does this go?  For some years Bible versions have been translating “ἀδελφοί” as “brothers and sisters” instead of brethren.  We’ve been lectured how this is an improvement.  This is not translation, but paraphrase, of course.  But now that we know for certain that bible translators are making changes to the bible text purely because they don’t like what it says, why would we believe them?

How far back does this really go?  All the modern versions prefer to render “αἱρετικὸν ἄνθρωπον” as “divisive person”, faithfully reflecting the liberal and ecumenical movement of the twentieth century, where the KJV renders it plainly as “heretic”.

I was rather dubious about the need for the ESV.  But how right they were, to establish the new version at that time, before the pressure was on.

Now if this can be done to the bible, it can be done to any book.  If all we have is kindle, then will we even know when things change?

Sobering stuff.

Meanwhile summer has arrived here with a vengeance, and we’ve just passed through some exceedingly hot days.  Luckily my mobile air-conditioning unit was one of the things that I brought over first!  But it’s like flying to the middle east – the first couple of days is just too hot to do much.  Let us lie back and enjoy it!


The July Poems in the Chronography of 354

The image for July is preserved once again only in a single manuscript of the Chronography, MS Vienna 3146, which never contains the text of the poems, only the pictures. So for the text of the poems, once again we are reliant on other, unillustrated, manuscripts, or the indirect tradition.

Here is the 4-line poem (tetrastich), with the draft translation that I made earlier in the year.  Comments are always welcome!

Ecce coloratos ostentat Julius artus
crines cui rutilos spicea serta ligat.
Morus sanguineos praebet gravidata racemos,
Quae medio cancri sidere laeta viret.

Look! July shows off his tanned limbs,
Whose reddish hair a garland of corn ties.
His reddish hair, to which he ties a garland of corn.
The glad mulberry, loaded down with fruit, offers blood-red berries,
It flourishes with joy  to hang down in the middle of the summer heat.
It is green in the middle star of Cancer.

I.e. in the heat of summer.

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

Quam bene, Quintilis, mutasti nomen! honori
Caesareo, Juli, te pia causa dedit.

How rightly, Quintilis, you changed your name!
A pious motive assigned you to the honour of Caesar.
The honour of Caesar, O July, gives you a pious motive.

I can’t work out the syntax for the second line: honori is dative, of course, not nominative.  The sense is that the motive for the change of name is to honour Caesar.

Again the image is only preserved in the 16th century Vienna manuscript 3416, folio 27 (online here):

As usual with this manuscript, the image is in the style of the renaissance, not antiquity.  But probably the layout is much the same as the original.  From Divjak and Wischmeyer, I learn that the depiction shows a naked young man – an image of summer, holding a bag in his right hand with extra long tassels.  In his left hand he holds a flat round basket containing three bunches of fruit with leaves, perhaps mulberries.  By his right foot is some kind of vessel – a money bag? – filled with coins marked with crosses and other symbols.  Two conical vessels stand by his left foot.  The whole picture is of a good harvest with the resulting wealth.

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

UPDATE: Many thanks to those who sent in corrections!


From my diary

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  I’ve been moving house, for the first time in 24 years.  I made the decision less than three weeks ago, the let of the property was only agreed about 10 days ago, and I took possession 5 days ago.  Today they installed an internet connection, which  took most of the day, and means that now I can connect properly to the web once more.

Of course I have had no time to pack, or do anything than the most immediate tasks.  A man in a van transported some basic furniture to the new house.

In fact I have only two books, which happened to be in my bedside cabinet at the moment of impact.  These are my bible, and a copy of Per Beskow’s Strange Tales About Jesus.

This slim volume consists of a series of chapters, each dealing with some specimen of “modern apocrypha”.  The term was coined by E. J. Goodspeed, who published two volumes of the same kind dealing with mainly American examples of the genre.  Beskow is Swedish, and discusses a few more.

Modern apocrypha are pretended books of the bible which were in fact composed in modern times.  Invariably they were composed in English, or the language of the country in which they circulate, for each country has its own stable of these things.  For the most part they are ignored by scholarship.

I’m not going to discuss the modern apocrypha here, however.  I am very tired and merely offering a few idle thoughts.  Concentrating on the frauds and follies of mankind is a narrowing experience anyway.  We are not the intended audience for “Jesus in India” and other such things.

The middle-aged engineer who came to install my broadband proved talkative, and it came out that he was fascinated by ancient Egypt and longed to travel there.  “I wish I had travelled more when I was younger,” he said.  He knew very little, but I found genuine enthusiasm.  He had been ensnared a bit by “how could the Egyptians have built the pyramids” stuff.  Of course I didn’t rain on his parade: only an oaf would have tried to correct his mistakes.  Instead I nodded along.

It is so important that we never crush the budding enthusiasm of others.  It can be hard to tell where the balance lies.  In person his sincerity was obvious.  Online, it might be mistaken for wrongheadedness.

Over the next month I hope to get my books over here, and get things set up.  It is very much quieter here, and such a blessing.  God leads us into things, and it seems that a new season is underway in my life too.

I’ll get blogging again once things settle down.


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!