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Glossary of Terms Used in Paleography


For paleography on the World Wide Web see the Paleography

Web Links file.


I Disciplines

Codicology derivation: "the study of the codex"

The study of manuscripts as objects rather than texts. Looks at ths creation (materials, scriptoria, etc.) and history (commissioning, place in collections and libraries). Equivalent German term is Buchwesen.

Diplomatics The study of documents connected with governmental and ecclesiastical archives.
Epigraphy The study of texts inscribed on buildings, other structures, and other physical objects. The main advantage of epigraphic texts is that they come to us directly, without the mediation of copyists. Some fairly long texts -- entire law codes as well as substantial chunks of religious texts -- were inscribed on objects. Where there is no physical damage, reading such texts is usually straightforward. Epigraphic information can give quite specific information about funeral practices, and thus demographic data, not available in any other way.
Paleography derivation: "old writing"

The study of manuscripts in order to be able to read the texts they contain.

Papyrology The study of texts written on papyrus. Since texts written in hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic Egyptian are the field of Egyptologists, "papryology" has come to mean the study of Latin, Greek and Coptic texts from Greek, Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Such texts were produced until the 8th century CE. The dicovery of huge amounts of papyrological material in the 18th and 19th centuries (and discoveries continue) revolutionized classical studies: new classical and biblical texts were found, as well as hitherto unavailable data on everyday life and commerce.

II The Matter of Manuscripts

Book Greek: Bibli/on, Bi/blos, De/tos
Codex Greek: de/ltos, pukti/on, teu^chos, kw^diks, swma/tion. Latin: codex (originally the trunk of a tree)
The arranged of pages of text in single sheets bound between covers - in other words the form of the modern book, and the most common form for Byzantine manuscripts. From the early Christian period on a preference developed for the codex over the roll, and great prestige accrued because of the codex's association with the New Testament. Codices allowed easy consultation of books, and enabled the works of "codification" in law and knowledge which marked much medieval scholarship, both east and west. Unlike rolls, pages in codices were written on both sides. They were thus more economical.

The codex was made up a number of quires.

  • See the illustrated Codex (at Brown's Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts Web)
Folio Greek pl.: phy/lla, charti/a, Latin: folio

One leaf of a codex.

Inks Greek: me/lan, e'/gkayston, Latin: atramentum

Inks in antiquity were usually made of carbon, (lamp soot for instance), mixed with a binding gum and water. After parchment became a more common writing material, (after 300 CE) iron based inks, which fade more easily, came into us. Red Ink {Greek: ko/kkinon me/lan, Latin: minium) was often used in headings (see lemma).

Notebook Latin: membrana

Roman business people kept accounts on wax tablet notebooks. These probably provided the model for the papyrus and parchment codex.

Page One side of a folio.
Palimpsest Greek: pali/mpshstos, derivation "scraped again"

A manuscript where a second or third text has been written over the original content which has been partially erased. Parchment was a very expensive commodity, and so was "recycled" by being scraped again. Sometimes text was written directly on top of the scraped original, at other times at right angles to it. The earlier text can often be read, either by sight, or by using technological aides. The study of palimpsests is useful not only in providing texts, but also in establishing dates for texts, as well as giving data on what material was considered not worth preserving in particular book production centers.

Paper Greek: zylocharti/on, zylo/teykton, Latin: charta Damscena, bombycina

Paper was invented in China (where it was used for printing as early as the ninth century CE) and was taken up by the Arabs in the 8th century after they discovered its use in Samarkand. Paper was usually made out of rags. A Greek MS on paper survives from circa 800 [Vat. Gr. 2200], but "Oriental" paper was imported from the Arab world in large amounts only from the 11th century. Vat. Gr. 504 from 1105 is the earliest Byzantine made paper MS to survive. From the 13th century "Occidental" paper was imported from Sicily and replaced imports from the Arab world. Paper was marked by watermarks which helps to date MS since paper was usually used soon after it was made.

Papyrus Greek: pa/pyros or By/blos, later Bi/blos, also cha/rths

A writing material made from the unrolled and hammered together pith of an Egyptian reed plant (Latin: Cyperus papyrus). It was the main material used in the ancient world for texts meant to last (wax tablets were used for many everyday purposes). The papyrus industry was on a large scale and a monopoly of the Ptolemies and later the Roman emperors. From the 4th century on parchment came to be used as well as papyrus, and the 7th century Arab conquest of Egypt seems to have hastened the move to other writing materials. It no longer grows in Egypt, apparently, but can be found in Sudan. Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. 12.2.2) gives a description of its manufacture.

  • See the illustrated Papyrus (at Brown's Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts Web)
Parchment Greek: diphe/ra, de/rma, Latin: membrana or charta Pergamena

Animal skin (sheep, goats, donkeys, calves) prepared for writing by being made smooth on one or both sides. Now usually sheepskin.

  • See the illustrated Parchment (at Brown's Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts Web)
Quires Greek: tetra/des, tetra/dia, Latin: quaterniones

A folded set of sheets of papyrus, parchment or paper. It could vary in size from one folded sheet to, most commonly, 4 sheets or more (hence the Greek and Latin terms). The result was a quire of two folios or four pages for each sheet used. Quires were sewn together to created each codex,

Recto is the "top" side of a folio or leaf, or any right-handed page. Verso is the "bottom" side of a folio or leaf, or any left hand page.
Roll Greek: ei'lhta/rion, ky/lindros, Latin: rotulus, volumen

The main form of the book in the ancient world. Rolls were made up of 20 to 50 glued sheets of papyrus. The horizontal fibers of the papyrus were on the inside (recto). Some rolls were made of animal skin (e.g. the Dead Sea scrolls). The were wound around wooden stick (Greek: o'mphalos) and often kept in parchment cover (Greek: diphe/ra) or box (Greek: kibwto/s). A label called a syllabus (Greek: si/llybos) was attached as an identifier. The rolls were read horizontally. From the 1st century CE on rolls tended to be replaced by the codex. Rolls continued to be used for some liturgical functions.

  • See the illustrated Roll (at Brown's Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts Web)
Ruling Patterns Parchment MSS, and less frequently, paper MSS, had lines ruled on the page before they were written on. There were a variety of ruling patterns (for instance one wide column of text or two parallel columns) , which help in identifying dates and locations of MSS creation.
Vellum Animal skin prepared for writing. Usually used to mean parchment of especially high quality. Now usually calf or goat skin.
Watermarks Paper made in the west and imported to Byzantium contained watermarks created by wire patterns attached to the paper mold. They can be seen by holding the paper up to the light. Because watermarks had a limited life span, usually 3-5 years, they are useful for dating MSS from the 13th century on.

III The Creation and History of Manuscripts

Book Binding Greek: sta/chwma, a'mphi/asma
Unlike rolls, which were stored as is, codices need to be bound. This could be done in silk or leather, usually used to cover wooden boards. Some important books had elaborate bejewelled covers which are art objects in themsleves.
Book Trade At many times and in many places the ancient world there was an active book trade, and hence commercial copying of texts. This trade collapsed at the end of antiquity and book production in Byzantium henceforth depended private commissions or on ecclesiastical (usually monastic) institutions. Books were very expensive as the materials were costly and they took a long time to write.
Exemplar A model specifically created for copying.
Scriptorium The place were books were copied. Monasteries of certain size might have specific work rooms for the copying of manuscripts.
Illumination Originally meant the use of gold leaf to "lighten up" a manuscript, but now applies to all kinds of illustration and decoration. There are many Byzantine illuminated manuscripts -- especially ecclesiastical texts. There is, however, only one illuminated historiographical manuscript, the so-called Madrid Skylitzes.
Libraries Collections of books, obviously. In Byzantium, because of the huge cost of books, private libraries were small, not usually larger than 25 to 30 books. Institutions would have larger libraries. Since libraries were so small, collectors seem to have gone for classic works. This meant that throughout Byzantine history there was a rather select canon of a small number of classical and patristic authors who tended to be read repeatedly by scholars (and cited by them): for example Plato, Homer, Gregory Nazianzos, John Chrysostom. More minor and later authors seem to have been much less read.

IV Manuscript Types

Literary inscriptions Epigrams and other literature preserved on stone.
Literary papyri Literary texts written on papyri. Copies of Greek texts survive from the 4th century BCE to the 8th century CE. They use both unicial and, later, cursive letter forms.
Uncial Codices
2-12th C.
From the 2nd century CE, the codex replaces the roll as the main form of book. Until the late 8th century all codices are written in uncial script. Very few MS of any kind survive from the 7th to early 9th centuries, and when Uncial MSS reappear they are soon displaced by minuscule MSS although they are produced for some purposes until the 12th century.
Codices vetusissimi
9th to mid-10th C.
Minuscule MSS - from the origins to mid-10th-century

The oldest minuscule MSS dates from 835 (the Uspenksy Gospels written in Jerusalem). The vetusissimi preserve pure minuscule letter forms.

Codices Vetusti
mid-10th to mid-13th C.
Minuscule MSS - from the mid-10th to middle 13th-centuries

Uncial letter forms are now mixed in with the pure minuscule forms. The oldest MS of authors such as Thucydides and Theognis are among these MSS. The best MS of Aristophanes, and oldest MS of Arrian, Lysias are among these.

Codices recentiores
mid-13th to mid-15th C
Minuscule MSS from the mid-13th to mid-5th centuries and the invention of printing in the West.
With the introduction of paper, books became cheaper to produce and a large number of MSS survive from this period.
Codices novelli
after mid-15th C.
Minuscule MSS written in the century after printing was invented.

Printing did not immediately displace writing, and some important witnesses to texts were written after 1450.

Printed Books In some cases the earliest printed books are the only or best witnesses to a text.

V The Content of Manuscripts

Abbreviations were commonly used in Greek MSS for common words, frequently repeated words and some names. Abbreviation could be done by giving the first letter or first few letters of a word, or by omitting word endings. Other abbreviations were more complex, did not look at all like usual letters and derived from shorthand usages. When the word-shortening was done by omitting all the middle letters, it is a contraction.
Book hands Types of writing used for literary texts meant to last. The aim was clarity and regularity. In the antiquity, when a book trade existed this copying might be done to dictation. In the Byzantine period, copying seems to have been the work of individual scribes. The major division is between the uncial book hands used until the 9th century and the minuscule book hands used thereafter.
Catena A Scholia-type commentary on patristic texts.
Compendia another term for abbreviations.
Cursive A writing style derived from the running action of the pen. It was used throughout antiquity, for private and public documents, and its letter forms were used as the basis of the more formal minuscule. A fundamental school taught alphabet of 24 letters remained behind all the letter forms.
Documentary Hands Types of writing used to write official documents. Often written rapidly without lifting the pen.
Foliation The numbering of folios within MSS.
Glosses Synonyms of words added by scribes or commentators.
Lemma The title of a work or chapter within a work. Commonly in later MSS it was written in Uncial letters, and often in red ink.
Ligatures Two or three letters which are joined together, but where the form of each letter is preserved. They were uncommon in uncial MSS, but very common in minuscule MSS. Since they make reading harder, although writing faster, it is unfortunate that many were taken over an preserved in early Greek printer's fonts.
Literary hands see book hands.
Majascule An alternative term for Uncial script.
Miniscule The form of letters used in Greek changed from about 800 CE. The letter forms are quite distinct from the older uncial forms. Sometimes this change is traced to the Stoudion monastery, but in fact the letter-forms derive from previous cursive usage, although the scriptorium of the Stoudion monastery may have propagated the script. It was much faster to write than the older uncial script and the vast majority of Byzantine MSS are in minuscule. Minuscule MSS do not separate words, but do add breathings and accents, increasing legibility. The use of ligatures and abbreviations, , however, counters ease of legibility. At first only the pure minuscule forms were used, but within a century, uncial letter forms began to be used alongside the pure minuscule (modern type fonts reflect both sources). To begin with, minuscule was written on the ruled lines of parchment, but later the fashion was to have the letters "hanging" from the line. Another later development was the use of a variety of different sizes for various letters. Although MSS dating is not perfect, distinct fashions in minuscule script do enable some dating of otherwise undated MSS.
Monocondyle A word or sentence written without lifting pen from paper.
Monogram A symbol in which a number of letters, usually of a name or title, are arranged together without any consideration for order. The common "Chi-Rho" symbol for Christ [a P (rho) imposed on a X (Chi)] is one example. In Byzantine MSS, they were used on monuments, coinss, ivories, etc. to indicate the owner.
Nomina Sacra Latin for "Sacred Names"
A limited number of names of sacred persons were often reduced by contraction - for instance "IC" for Jesus, "KS" for "Kyrios". Often the name is marked by a line over the letters used.
Pagination The numbering of pages. This was a fairly late development and is feature of printed books not MSS.
Punctuation Greek punctuation is a relatively modern invention. It consists of the comma (,), the semi-colon (·), the period (.) and the interrogation mark (;).

Many MSS lack punctuationl in others the main punctuation mark is a high dot, which may indicate a complete sentence or merely a pause.

Scholia Commentaries and annotations on a text.

Byzantine scholars loved to comment on older texts. A common way to do this was by making line-by-line marginal notes to a base manuscript. Such comments were often not original but compiled from earlier commentaries. They were common in Byzantium in 9th- and 10th-century MSS.

Tachygraphy Greek: tachygraphi/a ("speedy writing")
A form of shorthand used in antiquity and by some Byzantine scribes. A number of the signs were used as abbreviations in non-tachygraphical MSS.
Uncial The script deriving from the common letter forms of antiquity, used in most Greek books until the 9th century, when it was largely replaced by minuscule. It was used after that in headings (lemmata) within minuscule MSS and in liturgical MSS. The letters were unconnected, and all of the same hight. No word division was used. There are only few Uncial MSS which survive from the Byzantine period.

VI The Editing of Manuscripts

Facsimile A reproduction of an original document. Sometimes this is photographic, other times only the shape of the letters is reproduced.
Recension An important classical or patristic text underwent various editions at the hands of later ancient and Byzantine scholars. Each version is called a "recension".
Stemma The "family tree" of a text's manuscript tradition.

An editor of text with many MS witnesses aims to establish the "original text". In order to establish this, the relationships of the various MSS needs to be established, for, while a majority of texts might give one reading, a smaller MS tradition might be closer to the original. Such a stemma is established by comparing MSS and establishing clusters based, often, on common mistakes. Perhaps the most famous modern effects of such study has been the displacement of the "majority text" of the New Testament (as used the Authorized Version/King James Version) with a much leaner text. Establishing a stemma is not necessary when an author's original autograph survives, or when various versions of an oral work are written down. For many Byzantine period texts, only a few MS, sometimes only one, survive for many texts (for instance of Michael Psellos' Chronographia).

Textual Criticism The complex process of editing a MS for a printed edition involves a number of facets. The first concern is to establish the 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. Even then, later readings may be more accurate for some parts, lines or words. Variant readings 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.
Transcribing The process of writing out in modern standard Greek script the text of a document. With some documents -- for instance, uncial mss -- this is fairly straightforward, with minuscule documents, the process involves much more deciphering (and expansion) of ligatures and abbreviations. Word division is usually done at this stage, but not addition of accents or correction of grammar and spelling.

Part of the Byzantium: Byzantine Studies on the Internet

© Paul Halsall 1996. Non-commercial reproduction permitted.

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