Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Greek Palaeography in Oxford

This is a guest post by Peter Gurry who just came home from the fifth Summer School of Greek Palaeography in Oxford:

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Last week was the fifth Summer School of Greek Palaeography hosted by Lincoln College in Oxford. This year’s program was run by Georgi Parpulov and a small cadre of other instructors.

The program ran for five days and concluded with a review exam on Saturday morning. The students were organized into groups of nine with each group led by a seasoned palaeographer. The majority of time was devoted to deciphering various Greek hands starting with Codex Bezae and quickly jumping to manuscripts from the 8th–15th century (so almost all minuscules). My own group spent time with about 30 manuscripts and I assume most of the other groups were the same. The focus was decidedly on matters of palaeography and codicology, so there was very little translation.

Nigel Wilson giving hands-on instruction at Christ Church library.

The late mornings were spent at either Christ Church library or the Bodleian examining manuscripts of roughly the same time period as in our reading groups. We got to examine a number of Psalters and Gospel books but the highlight was seeing a book of patristic excerpts presented to Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) that had been commissioned by the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury. At something like 2.5 feet tall by 2 feet wide, I was told it was the largest Greek book in the Bodleian’s collection.

Georgi Parpulov explaining codices in the Christ Church library.

The evenings were given to lectures from Nigel Wilson (Oxford), Hugh Houghton (University of Birmingham), Ilse de Vos (King’s College London), and Elisabeth Jeffreys (Oxford).

Nigel Wilson opened the series with a lecture on “The Rewards of Palaeography.” The main reward, he said, was filling in some lacuna in our present knowledge by finding previously unknown texts such as the sermons of Origen found a few years ago or the Archimedes Palimpsest, by finding an older copy of a known text, or of correcting the work of previous scholars.

On Tuesday, Hugh Houghton gave an energetic talk on “Digital Editing and the Greek New Testament” that was meant to introduce the work being done on the Editio Critica Maior. He gave a brief overview of the CBGM and noted its role in helping establish the “earliest attainable text” (his term). He also gave us quick demos of the software currently being used at Birmingham to collate MSS and to construct variation units from those collations. If I heard correctly, the collation software is already implemented on the NT.VMR website, but this was the first I’ve seen of the additional software that they are using to demarcate variation units. One interesting feature I noted was that the software displays a warning message whenever the editor combines variants into a variation unit in such a way that it misrepresents one of the witnesses in that particular unit. It all looked quite impressive in the demo and I’m eager to know more about how it works. I was also interested to learn from Houghton that there are already plans to build a fresh version of the CBGM software at Birmingham as well. It will be worth watching to see what innovations such a project might produce; might we finally see a version that will allow others to construct their own local stemmata? Whether or not we can hope for such a development, there is clearly a very fruitful collaboration happening between text critics and computer scientists at Birmingham and we can all hope that continues. In all, I think Houghton did a great job presenting some of the developments happening in our discipline to text critics working on other texts. I left with the feeling that now is an exciting time to be working in this field.

On Thursday night, Ilse de Vos spoke to us on “Dealing with an Abundant Textual Tradition,” a talk which introduced us to her editorial work on the Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem. This collection of 137 questions and answers about Christianity is extant in some 250 witnesses in Greek, Latin, Church Slavonic, Arabic, and several other languages. What caught my attention was how helpful she has found phylogenetic methods to be especially in tracing the textual transmission of the Quaestiones. Although she hasn’t been able to root her phylogenetic tree yet, she has been able to identify a number of different manuscript groupings and even to connect some of these groups to various translations. For her this has raised the question of whether her critical edition should focus on reconstructing the original Greek text of the Quaestiones or should instead focus on the Greek text from which some of the more interesting translations were made.

A Psalter

The final lecture was given on Thursday evening by Elisabeth Jeffreys on “Editorial Problems in Byzantine Homilies.” Jeffreys is currently working on an edition of the homilies of James of Kokkinobaphos which exists in two remarkably similar copies, often agreeing with each other even at the level of punctuation. It struck me as a good example of the kind of skill Byzantine scribes could achieve.

The week gave me a much greater respect for the discipline of palaeography and a much better sense of how such work is conducted. Particularly with the Byzantine period where so many dated manuscripts are extant, I can see little reason for skepticism about the dates offered by those who specialize in this discipline. All-in-all it was a great week and I would highly recommend that those interested in textual criticism take part the next time around. Many thanks to Georgi Parpulov and the other instructors for putting on such a valuable course.


  1. Thanks for the write-up. It sounds like a great experience!

  2. Yes, thank you for describing your experience.

  3. Thank you for this summary, Peter! I enjoyed the program as well and am very thankful for Georgi Parpulov's expertise. We couldn't have had a more patient and knowledgeable instructor!

  4. Hi,

    Do modern codicology and palaeography experts have any writings specifically referring to how the color of vellum changes over a millennium an more?

    And I would be especially interested in knowing how they relate to the color anomaly of the Codex Friderico-Augustanus section of Sinaiticus.

    I've only seen minor individual references, never any even quasi-rigorous study or survey.


    Steven Avery