Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Manuscript Life Spans

Leo Depuydt offers some interesting insight into the length of time a manuscript might survive. The following footnote appears within his excellent catalog of the Pierpont Morgan Coptic manuscripts.

"An example of how much time it took for books to deteriorate is provided by a codex described as Nos. 144 + 411. This codex can be dated with reasonable certainty to the first years of the tenth century AD. For its upper pastedown were used fragmentary leaves taken from disused codices and containing colophons dated AD 856 and 868. These two codices had therefore fallen into a state of disrepair in about half a century."
Catalogue of Coptic Manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library (Louvain: Peeters, 1993), L, fn. 30.

J. P. Morgan purchased what are now known as the Hamuli codices. Many of these manuscripts were recovered in almost perfect condition in 1910, and now are the best examples of the bindings used in ancient codices from this period. Ironically, we probably owe the survival of these manuscripts to a persecution which occurred under Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1012/1013, as monks appear to have hid them in a stone cistern in anticipation of their monastery's impending destruction. A Fayumic colophon in a Bohairic manuscript (P.Vat.Copt. 68 f.162v) dated to 1014 suggests as much (Depuydt, cxvi).


  1. My initial reaction to this example is that the time span is pretty short (I can think of other short examples as well as longer ones). A more general result could be gained from looking at palimpsests and comparing the dates of the under text and the upper text. One could get a reasonably large data set from this (even from NT Greek MSS) fairly readily. In fact, it seems so obvious I guess that someone has probably done it already.

  2. Palimpsests are tricky. If a manuscript is truly worn out, then would it be a candidate for a palimpsest? Perhaps if you trimmed the edges, you could produce a nice manuscript from a destroyed one. Some manuscripts may be chosen for a palimpsest because the language or text is no longer interesting to the community. Such disuse would be the opposite of wear and tear.

  3. It's not particularly news that manuscripts can be read to pieces in a half-century or less. It's just that we don't usually see those because they've been, well, read to pieces.

    Original materials quality is important, but handling and storage conditions are VASTLY more important in determining how long any particular physical artifact lasts.