Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fighting over Recto and Verso

Over the recent weeks I have been twice in a skirmish on the correct use of the terms recto and verso, and I blame the dark days of early papyrology for this (there are articles on this topic; I leave it to commentators to share that wisdom). Before the dawn of papyrology everyone knew what the recto and verso of a manuscript page were: the recto is the front, the verso the back, identified on the basis of the direction of the text. On paper the physical aspects of either side of the page are (virtually?) indistinguishable; on parchment there is a hair and flesh side, though with well prepared parchment there is not that much of a striking difference. However, on papyrus there is the writing either along the direction of the strips of papyrus or across these. But still, recto and verso are terms based on the direction of the text, not on any physical aspect of the material.

Then there were papyrologists. And they described rolls, where the primary writing is on the 'along side' (normally the inner side of the roll), and where there is possibly secondary writing on the 'across side' (normally the outer side of the roll). Or other reused sheets of papyrus, where, again, the first text is along, and the secondary text across (normally). And the terms recto and verso were used so that they became often identical with along and across the direction of the fibres.
I think that this explains the odd labelling on the actual frames of P45, where the folio number is followed by a 'r' or 'v' which indicates not the direction of the text, but the direction of the fibres. In the transcription on the INTF website the same terms are used, but there correctly. This results in regular mismatches between the labelling on the frame and on the transcription. E.g. folio 16:

Label on frame '16v'; content John 10:7-25; transcription '16r'

Label on frame '16r'; content John 10:29 - 11:10; transcription '16v'

These days papyrologists tend to avoid the terms recto and verso (and rightly so, at least in their world), but within book studies (codicology proper) the terms have a rightful place as describing the direction of the text.

Physical description Parchment: Hair - Flesh. Papyrus: Along (→) - Across (↓)
Text direction (not related to the physical description!) Parchment: Recto - Verso. Papyrus: Recto - Verso (only really useful in papyrus codices)

It is only now with electronic texts and webpages that recto and verso have lost their relevance.


  1. I share your frustration with Kenyon's plates that follow papyrological terminology (V/R, two V's in the middle of codex, then R/V), but there doesnt seem to be a clear explanation of what you mean by text direction.

    I agree, in that establishig R/V based on physical aspects (fiber direction) doesnt speak to the position of a folio in a codex since not all sheets are consistently laid face up before folding, but how is text direction (left to right or right to left) relevant if for example there is text on both sides of a single folio outside a codex?

  2. What I mean with 'text direction' is whether the text on the one side of the page is the continuation of the other page or precedes it. So, a leaf where one side finishes on, say, John 5:3, and the other side starts with the next verse, has a clear recto and verso: earlier parts of the text precede later parts of the text. (And in a sense it doesn't make a difference whether a text is written from left to right or right to left.) I don't mean anything like 'direction of writing the lines'.

  3. Dirk, this last comment of yours has finally shone the light on the true difference between recto and verso. Of course on a fragmentary papyrus it's not so obvious until one has determined the text, but it's deceptively simple, using the formula you gave, to determine which is which: the text on the verso is always a continuation of the text on the recto.
    I spent hours puzzling over Tommy Wasserman's transcription of p78. He got it right the first time, but then the publisher included an errata sheet (with the verso blank) which reversed the recto and verso of Folio 2.
    Next, a post to distinguish between 'sheet' 'leaf' 'page' and 'folio.'

  4. A somewhat related issue: Opistograph. Apparently there are two definitions. William A. Johnson, Books and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (p. 342): "Opistograph. A bookroll where the text is written on both front (recto) and back (verso). This term does not apply when both sides are written upon because the papyrus has been reused." The Oxford English Dictionary, for what it's worth, entry spelled opisthograph, does not include the limitation in the second sentence; nor does it limit to writing on papyrus. Examples of the broader use, including papyrus and skin, and in cases of Qumran mss where the second writing is from a second, later scribe: Michael O. Wise, Thunder in Gemini and Emanuel Tov, Scribal practices and approaches reflected in the texts found in the Judean desert.

  5. I suggest an easy resolution of the issue (in Dirk's favor) by abandoning the terms recto/verso and calling the pages "a" and "b" based on the direction of textual flow.

    Thus, fol.16a will have continuing text on fol.16b, regardless of the direction of the fibers or hair versus smooth side.

    Or is this too simple because it actually makes sense?

  6. Important subject to avoid confusion. P43 is mislabeled in the INTF VMR (probably due to Milne who labels it the same way). Rev 2:12-13 is across the fibers, but it's labeled recto (since it's the earlier passage). Rev 15:8-16:2 is along the fibers, but it's labeled as verso (since it's the latter passage). I address this in my forthcoming essay on P43.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Just call "the right hand page" of a codex "cod.(icological) recto.

  9. I think you're right about the reason behind Kenyon's use of v. and r., although—in P47, at least—I'm inclined to think that the different VMR usage could be a simple oversight (as a similar thing happens when you compare K.'s facsimile edition vis-à-vis the editio princeps). I'm afraid I still use Kenyon's taxonomy when referencing the readings, as it's easier to follow for those who use the It would be odd to use these terms in any codicological discussions, however. (Turner suggests eschewing recto and verso in relation to papyri altogether.)