A “beautiful allusion” to palimpsests in John Chrysostom, and the less beautiful task of verifying it

In 1866 a lecture was given by a certain Dr Charles William Russell (d.1880), President of Maynooth College, with the title, “Cardinal Mai and the Palimpsests”.  This contained the following statement, which has been repeated in some form now for 160 years.

The practice [of palimpsesting] continued, in a greater or less degree, under the later emperors ; and there is a beautiful allusion to it in one of St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies,+ in which he compares the mind upon which evil impressions had once been made to a palimpsest parchment in which, however carefully the old characters and lines are sure to appear peeping the new writing.

It appears from the introduction of the editor that the text of the lecture was discovered, unpublished, among the papers of the author.  So it was printed in the Irish Monthly 38 (1910), p.301-315, more than forty years after it was delivered.

These words have had a literary afterlife quite disproportional to their origin.  When the claim is quoted, a reference is given to the homilies on Matthew, if at all.  But there is no sign that the reference has been verified.  Indeed a correspondent, Prof. Johnnie Gratton, formerly of Trinity College Dublin, wrote to me a week ago and raised the question, which drew my attention to the matter.

Our first port of call is the original article, which is in JSTOR here.  This gives a footnote, which reads, in its entirety, “Matth. xxvi. 4.”  But there is no homily of Chrysostom on that verse; indeed Chrysostom only refers to the verse once, according to the Biblindex database, and that in his 15th homily on Romans.

I then came across a possible answer, in a Ukrainian paper, of all possible sources.  The article has an English abstract and is Daria Morozova, “The school of Antioch and its pedagogical metaphors”,  in: Мultiversum: Philosophical almanac 1 (2020),188-201 (online here).   Thankfully Google Translate handles this well. Dr. Morozova begins:

In Antiochian authors, as in all Byzantine patristic in general, several pedagogical metaphors of ancient origin compete, which in very different ways – and in diametrically opposite ways – represent the nature of the educator’s influence on the child. Perhaps the most common pedagogical metaphor until now is the image of a blank sheet (tabula rasa), on which he outlines his meanings …  If the metaphor of a blank sheet comes from the materialist psychology of Aristotle (De anima, III, 4, 429b – 430a), …

Then on p.191 we find this:

Tabula rasa or palimpsest?

Chrysostom refers to the first paradigm – tabula rasa – very often, but it has a slightly more complex configuration. Instead of a “blank sheet”, John imagines a palimpsest with many layers of text, where each new recorded text hopelessly hides everything from sight. In one of the exegetical sermons (In Matt. 11.7), John rebukes his (adult) listeners for treating worship as a sad duty and not as a fascinating learning process in which the teachers are “prophets, apostles, patriarchs. and all are righteous. ” After singing a few psalms, they carry home “empty charters” (κενὰς… δέλτους), which, however, are not really empty. After all, at home the faithful allow passions and all the hustle and bustle of life to flood their hearts with “spam”, which makes them deaf to the divine lessons of the liturgy.

“That is why,” John complains, “when I take your charters (δέλτους), I cannot read them. I do not find the letters that we write down for you on Sundays (…), but I find others instead – meaningless (ἄσημα) and distorted. We, wiping them (ἐξαλείψαντες), write what is from the Spirit, and you, leaving here, surrender your hearts to the devil’s actions (διαβολικαῖς ἐνεργείαις), and again give him the opportunity to rewrite.” (In Matt. 7.7: PG 57, 200).

Therefore, Chrysostom asks his children: “Wipe away the letters or, more precisely, the imprints (χαράγματα) that the devil has engraved (ἐνετύπωσέ) in your soul, and bring me a heart free from all the confusion of life, so that I can write freely, to him that ho-chu”.

Spiritual education in this description resembles a certain information war, where opponents tirelessly rewrite texts on the tablets of hearts (“others against others”, ἕτερα ἀνθ ‘ἑτέρων). Thus, within the usual metaphor of a blank sheet, pedagogy is no longer presented as a one-time path from zero to 100% completeness, but as a virtually endless process of editing.

Note that I don’t know a letter of Ukrainian, nor even the Cyrillic alphabet, so all this is from Google Translate.  It’s remarkably good, isn’t it?

Here, I think, we have a modern researcher independently reading Chrysostom and concluding that a palimpsest is involved.  Better still, we have references!  Let’s see what they say.

The first reference is to “In Matt. 11.7”. But don’t be misled here – this is not about Matthew chapter 11, verse 7!  This refers to “Homilies on Matthew, homily 11, chapter 7”.   This can be found in the Patrologia Graeca text, PG 57, col. 200.  And “Homily 11 on Matthew” is commenting on Matthew 3:7.

The second reference is to “In Matt. 7.7: PG 57, 200”; but this is, again, in fact homily 11, chapter 7.  I assume “7:7” is a typo for “11:7”.  The material for both references seems to be from the same passage, as we shall see.

Luckily we have a complete translation of the Homilies on Matthew.  They were originally translated for the Oxford Movement Library of the Fathers of the Catholic Church series.  Sir George Prevost made the translation, and it was published as volumes 11 and 15 in 1843, and vol. 34 in 1851.  These were then pirated for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, and slightly revised to update the language, formatting and footnotes.  The translation was made from a different edition, in which the material is in chapter 9.  The LFC may be found here.  Here’s the NPNF:

And yet our teachers here are more in number and greater. For no less than prophets and apostles and patriarchs, and all righteous men, are by us set over you as teachers in every Church. And not even so is there any profit, but if you have joined in chanting two or three Psalms, and making the accustomed prayers at random and anyhow, are so dismissed, you think this enough for your salvation. Have ye not heard the prophet, saying (or rather God by the prophet), This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me?

Therefore, lest this be our case too, wipe out the letters, or rather the impressions, which the devil has engraven in your soul; and bring me a heart set free from worldly tumults, that without fear I may write on it what I will. Since now at least there is nothing else to discern, except his letters — rapines, covetings, envy, jealousy.  Wherefore of course, when I receive your tablets, I am not able so much as to read them. For I find not the letters, which we every Lord’s day inscribe on you, and so let you go; but others, instead of these, unintelligible and misshapen. Then, when we have blotted them out, and have written those which are of the Spirit, you departing, and giving up your hearts to the works of the devil, give him again power to substitute his own characters in you. What then will be the end of all this, even without any words of mine, each man’s own conscience knows. For I indeed will not cease to do my part, and to write in you the right letters. But if you mar our diligence, for our part our reward is unaltered, but your danger is not small….

The use of the word “impressions” confirms that we are dealing with the passage that Dr Russell had in mind.

The translator, Sir George Prevost, has rendered δέλτος as “tablet”, meaning a writing tablet.  Likewise the modern Latin translation in the PG edition renders it as “tabula”.  The wonderful Logeion site here confirms this understanding.

Here’s the PG text, bottom of col. 200.  I’ve highlighted the δέλτος:

My correspondent also drew my attention to a passage in the next chapter, where we have the phrase “the tablet of the mind”:

But in order that the same may not happen again — that you may not, having here admired what is said, go your way, and cast aside at random, wherever it may chance, the tablet of your mind, and so allow the devil to blot out these things — let each one, on returning home, call his own wife, and tell her these things, and take her to help him

The nearly unreadable PG in column 202, lines 19-20 gives δέλτον τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν, rendered in the Latin as “mentis vestrae tabula”.

Nowhere is the word “palimpsest” used, tho.  The text refers solidly to a youth’s tablet, used for writing, where the text can be erased and fresh text written.  The idea of half-erased impressions is definitely present – but refers to wax tablets, not to parchment erased and rewritten.

    *    *    *    *

Not every reader of this blog will be familiar with Roman wax tablets.  These are well known, and many resources for them exist online.

A thin wooden frame contained a central surface of wax.  The writer used a stylus with a pointed end to write.  The other end was flat, in order to erase it.  A depiction from 480 BC of just such a tablet in use is known to us: (h/t Michel Lara)

A modern reproduction looks like this:

With luck we can now put an end to the “Chrysostom talked about palimpsests” myth.


19th century treatments of palimpsests with chemicals

The British Library assigns its Syriac manuscripts to the “Asian and African Studies” department.  The people there are far easier to deal with than the people in Western Manuscripts.  They also run a blog which from time to time contains frankly wonderful material.

One such post was made back in September 2013, and I have written about it before.  It’s titled Some Syriac Manichean Treasures in the British Library, by Ursula Sims-Williams, and includes a picture of a page from BL Additional 12150:

Final page of Titus of Bostra, Against the Manichaeans. BL Add.12150, f.156r. Ms made in 411 AD!
Final page of Titus of Bostra, Against the Manichaeans. BL Add.12150, f.156r. Ms made in 411 AD!

What caught my eye today was a postscript by Christina Duffy, which must have been added subsequently.  It concerns palimpsests, those manuscripts where, in ancient times, the text was washed off the parchment, and a new text written on top.  Sometimes the lower text was dimly visible, even so.

In the 19th century, scholars discovered that the under text could be made very clear by painting the page with “reagents” – chemicals, usually acids of one sort or another.  This allowed the under-text to be transcribed, but also frequently damaged the manuscript.  However what was done precisely, and why it worked, has never been clear to me.

Christina Duffy’s statement is the clearest explanation of the subject that I have ever seen, and I’m going to give it here, word for word.

Sadly the result of chemicals used to make indecipherable script legible is seen in many of our manuscripts here at the BL. While the treatments initially enhanced the faded text greatly it was only a matter of time before the entire passage was left in a much worse state!

In 1969 Restaurator reprinted a report of the St Gallen Conference on the Conservation of Manuscripts from 1898 which listed gallic acid, thiocyanate, ammonium sulphide, sodium sulphide, potassium ferrocyanide and tannin solution as chemicals used to recover text. Essentially the reagents were attempting to balance the ink formulation. By “reagent” we mean a substance or compound used to bring about a chemical reaction.

There is mention of the use of chemical reinforcements as early as the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 19th century when chemistry was more understood that lots of reactions were tried out. For iron-gall ink, a good stable black ink is formed by a black iron-gall ink complex. If the ink production for whatever reason is imperfect, ink can become illegible overtime i.e. fade. Imperfect ink is generally missing one of the essential compounds in the ink ingredient list (such as iron sulphide or gallic acid) so it makes sense that applying these missing chemicals will allow the reaction to take place and the text to become clear again! Which is what they did, but alas the aftermath was less pleasing!

The oldest known recipe for text recovery uses gallic acid. One article suggests making an extract of gall-nuts in white wine and wetting the missing text with a sponge to recover the text. However it isn’t mentioned that the gall-nut extract goes brown itself after a few years and wherever the liquid was applied turns dark brown so nothing is legible!

Other treatments include hepar suplhuris, toning letters blue by reacting iron ions with potassium hexacyanoferrates or placing the text briefly in hydrochloric acid. Some manuscripts treated in this way are now covered in blue dye and completely illegible…which is why using imaging techniques is a much better idea!

There is a good article explaining all this including the chemical formulas by Robert Fuchs, “The history of chemical reinforcement of texts in manuscripts – What should we do now?” in Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 7 (2003): 159–170.

I wonder if multi-spectral imaging would give us something, even now?


Eusebius Chronicon book 1 – portion of original Greek rediscovered!

A very interesting article (in English) by J. Gruskova has appeared on the web, discussing recent work with Byzantine palimpsests, at the Austrian National Library.[1]  Somewhat annoyingly the PDF doesn’t allow copying of the text, so I can’t give you more than snippets here.

The article notes various palimpsests where modern technology – multi-spectral imaging – is producing spectacular results, even compared with the use of UV lamps less than 10 years ago.

The most interesting is the discovery of two leaves from a manuscript of Eusebius’ Chronicon book 1, otherwise preserved only in a single Armenian manuscript.  The ms. is Vienna Iur. gr. 18, fol. 32 and 39, which must have been an internal bifolium of a quire.  Comparing it with Karst’s GCS edition, it contains the text from Karst p.9, line 1, to Karst p.10 line 27.  It was digitised under UV in 2007 and 2008, which allowed only 60% of the text to be read; MSI will now be applied to it.

Other items discussed are 33 folios of Herodian’s De prosodia catholica, a 2nd century AD exposition in 20 books of the rules for accentuating Greek; an anthology of Byzantine legislation known as the Basilica; possible fragments of the lost 3rd c. Scythica (about the Goths etc) of Dexippus; and a new manuscript of Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ De cerimoniis.

It’s all extremely valuable stuff; but also very encouraging!  We have the technology.

  1. [1]J. Grusková, Further Steps in Revealing, Editing and Analysing Important Ancient Greek and Byzantine Texts Hidden in Palimpsests. Graecolatina et Orientalia 33-34 (2012) 69-82.