Byzantine Manuscript Sources
[note: highlighted words are explicated
in the Paleographical Glossary]
Manuscripts produced in the Byzantine period are the main source
we possess for both ancient Greek and Byzantine civilizations
in all their aspects. Other sources -- physical remains, Latin,
Arabic, Syriac, Armenian and Slavic texts -- are also significant,
but pale before the approximately 55,000 Greek manuscripts which
survive (Dain 77) (compared to over 300,000 surviving Latin MSS).
Of these about 40,000 date from the Byzantine period, the vast
majority from the tenth century and later. The simple fact of
the matter is that if Byzantine scholars, intellectuals and church
people in the later centuries of the Empire had not pursued, and
funded, the copying of manuscripts, the heritage of the ancient,
early Christian, and medieval Greek worlds would have been lost.
The art of reading manuscripts is called paleography (from
the Greek for "old writing"). Paleography is an academic
discipline in itself, with its own methods and working tools.
It remains primarily, however, ancillary to history in that its
goal is to enable the reading of texts of interest to historians.
Although the earliest modern scholars of Byzantium seem to have
been able to read the manuscripts fluently, today the vast majority
(if not all) scholars proceed by transcribing the manuscripts
they are working with into standard modern forms of writing. This
is necessary because the writing of the ancient and medieval worlds
had characteristics which impose difficulties for modern readers
used to printed script -- for instance, a lack of word division
or punctuation in a sentence, a variety of forms for many
letters, ligatures, use of abbreviations/contractions,
and sometimes sheer sloppiness. When a manuscript has been transcribed,
and compared with other manuscripts to get the presumed "original
text", it is said to have been "edited". Editing
can mean anything from preparing the only manuscript of a text
for publication -- in which case a text is transcribed, ligatures,
abbreviations and contractions expanded, quotations exposed, and accentation/grammar corrected -- to the extremely complex
process of juggling many manuscripts of a text in order to establish
the best text (aka textual criticism) . With the New
Testament, probably the best attested text of the ancient
world, this can mean taking into account thousands of manuscripts.
Because manuscripts are such an important aspect of the evidence
we have about Byzantine culture, it has also proved worthwhile
to study the creation and nature of manuscripts themselves - to
study what they are rather than what they contain. This discipline
is called codicology. When the emphasis is on archival
documents (governmental and legal documents for example), the
specific area of study is called diplomatics. Since no
complete archive of governmental documents has survived from the
Byzantine era, Byzantine diplomatics also tires to assess how
government offices worked. Both these terms are also used about
documents in Latin and western vernaculars, but the survival of
a large number of more or less complete medieval government archives
and institutional libraries means that the disciplines are perhaps
more central to Western medievalist scholarship.
Not all students of Byzantium need to work directly with manuscripts.
A great many texts, especially historiographical and ecclesiastical
documents have been edited but not analyzed in any great depth,
and these are the focus many scholars' study. Still, it is necessary
for any student to have some exposure to "real" documents
(or at least facsimiles of real documents) in order to
get a feel for the sources. Even those scholars who work directly
with manuscript source documents often do not have to be able
to read the whole range of Byzantine material: although there
are huge variations in letter forms, for example, individual documents
or even series of documents may became fairly simple to decipher
after a few pages of slogging!
The goal then is to read Byzantine writing. The problem is
that the writing is by no means easy to read. While there was
a fixed basic alphabet of 24 letters, the forms of these letters
could vary massively (think of the modern variety of forms of
"a", "b", "e", "g", "r",
"v" in modern western handwriting). There were two basic
sources of letter shapes -- the older uncial letters of
antiquity, and the minuscule letters of the ninth century
on (derived from earlier cursive scripts). Although there
were "pure" uncial and minuscule manuscripts, the vast
majority of later manuscripts combine letter forms from both sources.
The result is that in many cases quite distinct letters had almost
Could be Confused With
||beta, delta, epsilon, lambda, mu, nu, upsilon
||alpha, gamma, eta, kappa, mu, nu, upsilon
||beta, lambda, tau, upsilon
||alpha, beta, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, pi,
||alpha, gamma, theta, iota, nu, pi
||alpha, beta, eta, kappa, lambda, nu
||alpha, beta, eta, lambda, mu, pi, upsilon
||eta, nu, omega
||alpha, beta, gamma, nu
Source: Tables of Greek Cursive Alphabets in E.M. Thompson, Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography, (Oxford: 1912),
Note: especially likely confusions are indicated in bold
To make matters more complicated, words were not separated in
many MSS, and many letters were run together in ligatures.
Breaks in script were often due to rules about ligatures rather
than word division. In later manuscripts accents might also be
combined with the letters, and ligatures. Finally, there were
a variety of abbreviations and contractions used
by scribes (although not so many in Greek as in Latin).
Complications of letter forms, ligatures and abbreviations, make
the task of reading seem formidable. Perhaps less so, however,
to anyone who has had to grade undergraduate examination papers.
With practice and familiarity it becomes possible to read most
documents (although some parts of some documents do remain indecipherable).
The main difference is that whereas undergraduates are, ostensibly,
writing in a languages (English) with which the grader is completely
familiar, few scholars have a similar fluency in Byzantine Greek,
and even fewer of those beginning advanced study. Thus reading
Greek manuscripts tends to be a possible but, to begin with at
least, tediously slow accomplishment.
III Editing a Text
The complex process of editing a MS for a printed edition involves
a number of activities, together known as textual criticism.
The first concern of an editor is to establish the base text.
Where only one MS is the witness to a text, or the author's own
original is available, this is a straightforward matter; but where
there are multiple MS witnesses, it is the goal of the editor
to establish a stemma in order to determine the best MS
to use as a base. This base forms the core of the printed text,
although later readings may be more accurate for some portions,
lines or words of the text. Variant readings from other MS are
indicated in notes.
Once the text is established, it is usual to correct spellings
and add or, if necessary, correct accents. Critics also
usually recognize and indicate the source of quotations or parallel
passages in other texts. Common with longer texts is the addition
of chapter divisions (rarely to never seen in the originals) and
The completed edited page is thus a work of tremendous painstaking
scholarship which calls upon both technical skills, wide-ranging
knowledge, and good judgment. Some scholars have argued that
at times the result is too good -- we are able to read the texts
and locate the references more easily than any ancient or medieval
scholar and hence must read it very differently. (See here for a image of a page of a recent edition.)
Older editions of Byzantine texts, for instance the collection
of Byzantine historians edited in Bonn in the nineteenth century
(the "Bonn Corpus"), or the ecclesiastical literature
published in Migne's Patrologia Greaca were usually accompanied
by a Latin translation. Many of these editions have been redone
since World War II (in series such as the French Sources chretiennes,
or the multi-ntaional effort to re-edit Byzantine historians
in the Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae). These often,
but not always, have a modern western language translation attached
(see the Byzantine Sources in Translation file for a fairly comprehensive listing of modern editions with
IV Byzantine Manuscripts - Where?
The centers of Byzantine culture were conquered by the Turks over
a period of 400 years. In the earlier centuries major cultural
centers outside Constantinople tended to be in Anatolia or even
Syria. Monasticism, for instance, was for a time dominated by
the monasticism of the Mt. Olympus region in Bithynia. All these
centers were lost to Byzantine control long before the period
from which most MSS survive. Some monasteries did, however, flourish
under Muslim control -- notably St. Catherine's on Mt. Sinai --
and some very ancient MSS survive there. The survival of MSS was
most common in monastic libraries which remained unmolested under
Turkish rule -- i.e. the monasteries of Athos, Meteora, many of
the Greek Islands, and the Greek monasteries of Southern Italy
(the sole remaining illuminated historical MS -- the Madrid
Skyltizes -- comes from this region). There is a tendency then
for ecclesiastical MSS to be preserved more than MSS containing
Outside the area of Byzantine control, Greek MSS seem to have
circulated in many Italian cities, especially Rome and Venice.
Many of these MSS accrued to Italian libraries before the Byzantine
Empire fell, but in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there
were major efforts by both Italian humanist scholars and Byzantine
intellectuals such as Cardinal Bessarion to bring MSS to Italy.
These collections made during the Renaissance are the basis of
the great Greek MS libraries of Italy - especially the Vatican
Libraries in Rome, and libraries in Venice and Florence. The
Vatican libraries are particularly vast - with over 150,000 MSS,
most in Latin but many in Greek and other languages. It was these
MSS which formed the basis for many of the earliest printed books.
The Northern renaissance lead to efforts by many humanist scholars
to collect Greek MSS in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The result is a number of Northern European libraries with vast
holdings - the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris, the British Library
in London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, as well as numerous
libraries in Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia.
American Libraries were, naturally somewhat late arrivals in the
project of collecting Greek MSS. Nevertheless the sheer wealth
of the US over the past century has enable a number of American
libraries to build significant collections. Given the understandable
unwillingness of European libraries to sell their MSS, however,
another strategy has emerged in the US -- the creation of microfilm
libraries. One is of particular note - the Vatican Film Library at St. Louis University (Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis
University, 3650 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis MO 63108, Tel: 314-977
3092, Fax, 314-977-3108, email firstname.lastname@example.org). Here the
entire Vatican MSS collection has been microfilmed and is accessible
to American based scholars.
Many of the libraries mentioned have published catalogs of their
holdings -- with varying degrees of detail and accuracy. For these
the listings by Marcel Richard, and Robert Sinkewicz are a necessary
guide. (see the links to Manuscript indices below).
Dain, Alphonse, Les manuscrits, 2d, ed, (Paris: 1964)
Bibliographies and Web Links
The author and maintainer of this site is Paul
Halsall. He can be contacted by email at
Please do not hesitate to mail comments or suggestions.