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Byzantine Manuscript Sources


I Introduction

[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!

II Writing
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 indistinguishable forms.

Letter Could be Confused With
alpha beta, delta, epsilon, lambda, mu, nu, upsilon
beta alpha, gamma, eta, kappa, mu, nu, upsilon
gamma beta, lambda, tau, upsilon
delta alpha
epsilon alpha
zeta xi, sigma
eta alpha, beta, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, pi,
theta lambda
iota lambda
kappa beta, eta
lambda alpha, gamma, theta, iota, nu, pi
mu alpha, beta, eta, kappa, lambda, nu
nu alpha, beta, eta, lambda, mu, pi, upsilon
xi zeta
omicron sigma
pi eta, nu, omega
rho phi
sigma zeta, omicron
tau gamma, psi
upsilon alpha, beta, gamma, nu
phi rho
chi psi
psi chi, tau
omega pi


Source: Tables of Greek Cursive Alphabets in E.M. Thompson, Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography, (Oxford: 1912), 191-193

Note: especially likely confusions are indicated in bold type.

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 line numbering.

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 translations).

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 secular texts.

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 [email protected]). 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).

Sources Cited

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.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 7 February 2023 [CV]