Greek Manuscripts

A guest blog by Project Cataloguer, Dr Matteo Di Franco.

The Wren Library is home to a stunning collection, ranging from medieval manuscripts to 20th-century rare editions, and since 2019 its Greek manuscripts have been receiving new and in-depth attention, thanks to the Polonsky Foundation Greek Manuscripts Project.

This is a collaborative project between the Universities of Cambridge and Heidelberg. It aims to conserve, digitise and catalogue the medieval and early modern Greek manuscripts held in Cambridge and the Palatini graeci now split between the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome and Heidelberg University Library.

O.4.3 p. 137. A late-15th or early-16th century copy of Aelius Aristides, with some sumptuous initials and headpieces in red and yellow ink and vegetative motif. The text in the image is “In Defence of The Four” (or. 3 Lenz-Behr), paragraph 150

More than 400 manuscripts dating from the 4th century CE to 1700 are available in Cambridge, scattered among 14 different institutions – Cambridge University Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum and 12 Colleges. The Wren Library has the largest collection among the Colleges: 134 manuscripts! Such a high concentration of Greek manuscripts is surely related to the Regius Professorship of Greek, a chair established in the University by Henry VIII in 1540 and associated with Trinity since the College’s foundation six years later.

The Trinity collection of Greek manuscripts encompasses the full chronological range of Greek manuscript culture, from Homer to the Fathers of Church, to the Byzantine literature and early modern scholarship, including poetry, drama, grammar, rhetoric, theology, liturgy, history, science and philosophy.

The only published catalogue of these manuscripts was compiled by M.R. James in 1900-1902. As part of the current project, all Greek manuscripts in Cambridge are receiving new and detailed descriptions and they are available to all on the Cambridge University Digital Library.

When a new college library was created in 1598, it held some 500 or 600 volumes, but only two manuscripts are known to survive from these early days, and only one of these – B.9.7 – is still in the College. This Greek volume is the manuscript the Trinity College has owned for the longest time.

B.9.7, p. 1

It was written by Emmanuel Bembaines of Monemvasia in the Peloponnese, and contains a number of letters and treatises by Athanasius of Alexandria (4th cent. CE). It was given to the college by John Christopherson, Master of Trinity and Bishop of Chichester, who died in 1558. Christopherson also wrote a tragedy in Greek, the Jephthah, based on Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. This is the only Tudor play written in Greek and one of the few known copies (O.1.37) is kept in Trinity.

R.9.9 f. ii recto

However, it was the 17th century that saw a great increase in donations of manuscripts, including for example Heroicus (On Heroes) R.9.20, given by another Master, Thomas Nevile (d. 1615), in 1611-12. One curious case is that of the manuscript R.9.9: it was actually donated to the University Library by the bishop of London Cuthbert Tunstall (1474-1559). The manuscript was lent to Roger Ascham (1515-1568) in 1539/40. It was never returned to the University Library but fortunately did not go missing but instead ended up in the Wren Library.

It is worth noting that in the years when the Wren Library was being built Trinity College became the epicentre of Greek studies thanks to Richard Bentley, Master  from 1700 to 1742, who is regarded as a founder of the discipline of philology, that is, the study of languages and their history. He himself possessed a number of Greek manuscripts from Mount Athos and bequeathed them to the Wren Library.

Among these manuscripts is B.8.1, a Menologion (service-book used in the Eastern Orthodox Church) of the 12th century. The manuscript is richly decorated, and the beginning is marked by a pyle (decoration in the form of a gateway) in red, blue, green and white paint and gold, with vegetative ornament. Like many manuscripts bought by Bentley, it was previously owned by the Monastery of the Pantokrator on Mount Athos.

B.8.1 f. 1r

Another of Bentley’s manuscripts is the 13th-century Gospel book B.10.17.

Detail: B.10.17 Part 2 f. 243r

Manuscripts in Bentley’s donation are almost all copies of patristic texts and were in use in monasteries: it is not uncommon to find traces of the wax of the candles used to read the texts and to imagine the atmosphere of the ancient monasteries.

Candle wax on the page: B.9.12, f.289v

A major turning point in the expansion of the manuscript collection came in 1738. The extensive manuscript collection of the fellow Thomas Gale, Regius Professor of Greek in 1666, was presented by his son, the antiquarian Roger Gale, to the Wren Library.

A wonderful example of these manuscripts is O.4.22, a gospel lectionary from 11th century, with painted and gilded headpieces.

O.4.22 f. 1r
Detail: O.4.22 f. 113v

These manuscripts were not only gathered and appreciated for their beautiful decorations, they were mainly the object of study for scholars. The great classical scholar Richard Porson (1759-1808), for example, read many of them and one in particular attracted his attention. Manuscript O.3.9, probably produced in the 12th century, is the oldest surviving copy of the Lexicon of Photios (c. 820-c. 891), sometimes called the Codex Galeanus.

Photios is one of the most important figures in Byzantine intellectual and religious history, and he played a prominent role in the early stages of the literary revival in 9th and 10th-century Byzantium. The Lexicon is a book of reference to facilitate the reading of classical and Christian authors. The manuscript is missing some of the text, but it was studied by leading scholars including Joseph Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon, Richard Bentley, Johann Reiske and Richard Porson. The Trinity College codex was the main witness to the work of Photios, until a complete copy of the text was found in the monastery of Zavorda in Greece in 1959.

O.3.9, f. 2r

New descriptions and images of the Cambridge Greek manuscripts are being prepared and will soon be available online, on both the Wren Digital Library and Cambridge Digital Library.

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