Archive for May 2012

Foreign languages and close reading   2 comments

In my experience, there is no other reading than close reading when reading in a foreign language. This is surely one of the benefits of reading in a foreign language, even when there may be a translation (or the original?!) in one’s own language to hand. There are layers in some books that ache for uncovering which we may easily pass over in our mother tongue but to which we nevertheless yield, tiresomely but grinningly, when the texts before us poke and prod with their reminders, perhaps just under our consciousness, that we better pay damn close attention or we’ll be lost. The ever-mustachioed Albert Schweitzer, who spoke both German and French from his childhood, opined that no one ever really has two mother-tongues, and that one of them requires more mental labor to use (see the note below). As for myself, I’m hardly a bilingual to that degree, so non-English reading (or listening!) often demands acute scrutiny and constant re-evaluation of the accumulating thoughts in the words.

While “close reading” is, as far as I know, a named product of twentieth-century literary criticism, it is hardly a new way of reading when understood broadly. Exegesis of important texts — poetic, religious, legal, etc. — has in various contexts long spawned voluminous commentaries filled with interpretation made up of sentences in a number far out of proportion to the words in the original text that they explicate. To be sure, there is a practical aim for some of this careful reading and explanation, especially in legal or, in certain societies, religious texts. But to be equally sure, another aim is mere, pure pleasure (delectatio), that which comes from the intellectual practice with considering in detail words, meanings, and grammar, and finally arriving at some understanding, and then going back to doing it again tomorrow; and of course, following all this slow, careful reading, or alongside it, may also be the animated discussion of it with fellow-readers.

Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins — in the preface to his delightful How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics, which I’ve finally gotten round to reading — quotes the definition “Philology is the art of reading slowly,” a description he inherited from his teacher Roman Jakobson (see Watkins’ article in Comparative Literature Studies 27 [1990]: 25), for whom, too, it was an inherited classification. One reason philology is so often (but not always) associated with texts in foreign languages is that those texts are the ones we absolutely must pay close attention to while reading, that is, those are the texts we must read slowly; otherwise we may as well pack up and go home, and do so the poorer.

This weekend, then, perhaps with even more gusto than usual, let’s read something hard, preferably in a foreign language, and have fun with it, and if we’re lucky, there’ll be someone else equally minded for us to share the pleasure with.


1. The interesting passage from Schweitzer will be found on pp. 51-52 of his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben und Denken (Leipzig, 1933), which I read years ago when first studying German, and which I recently translated (roughly!). Here it is, for those that care to read it: schweitzer_on_french_german

2. Nietzsche’s remarks quoted here are most apropos to the concept discussed here.

Some maxims (Syriac & Arabic)   1 comment

At the beginning of CFMM 306 are a few maxims, first in Syriac, then in Arabic (Garšūnī):

CFMM 306, f. 1r

The ink and hand are none too lovely, but the thoughts are, at least. English’d they are:

  • Don’t believe everything you hear.
  • Don’t tell* everything that you see.
  • Don’t say everything that you know.
  • Don’t do everything that you are able to do.
  • Don’t give all you possess.

(*The Syriac has “judge”; the word can mean “declare”, but having to do with a dream, that is, to judge the significance of a dream and to declare it to the dreamer.)

These are maxims of reticence or prudent withholding, all of this basic theme, and they reflect the experience of those who, having given too freely of their means or knowledge, have gotten into trouble, lost relationships, and more. There are, of course, notable traditions of maxims and proverbs spanning ancient near eastern and classical literature (at least Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin), and the sentiments indicated above are hardly unique among those traditions. Erasmus’ Adagia would supply as with many similar items fromg Greek and Latin, richly commented upon — there is to my knowledge nothing comparable for ancient near eastern literature taken comprehensively — but it will suffice to list a few that are to hand.

  • Aḥiqar, Saying 15 (Lindenberger, pp. 75-76): “Above all else, guard your mouth; and as for what you have h[eard], be discreet! For a word is a bird, and he who releases it is a fool.” (מן כל מנטרה טר פמך ועל זי שמעת הוקר לבב כי צנפר הי מלה ומשלחה גבר לא לבב). The last line here brings to mind Homer’s ἔπεα πτερόεντα (“winged words”); perhaps Martin West or others have made the connection before, too, but I’m unaware of it, if so. (For the present purposes, for this and the other sayings from Aḥiqar, I have not marked the few conjectured letters of the Aramaic text as such: see Lindenberger for discussion of each case.)
  • Saying 53 (Lindenberger, 140-141): “Do not reveal your [secr]ets before your [frien]ds, lest your reputation with them be ruined.” (סתריך אל תגלי קדם רחמיך אל יקל שמך קדמיהם)
  • Saying 59 (Lindenberger, 149, partly reconstructed from Armenian and Slavonic versions): “Do not be too sweet lest you be [swallowed]; do not be too bitter [lest you be spat out].” (אל תחלי ואל יבלעוך אל תמר ואל ירקוך)

A quick scan of the gnomai Menandri (ed. Dindorf) yields these admittedly only slightly related finds, the iambic trimeters of which I apologize for not rendering analogously:

  • 90. Γλώσσης μάλιστα πανταχῆ πειρῶ κρατεῖν. Make every effort to rule especially over your tongue.
  • 448. Πρᾶττε τὰ σεαυτοῦ μὴ τὰ τῶν ἄλλου φρόνει. Mind your own business: don’t worry with the affairs of others.

There’s much more in the gnomai about friends, women (not much in appreciation!), parents, and old age.

From the Monosticha Catonis, we might mention:

  • 13. Rem tuam custodi. Watch over your own matter(s).
  • 23. Cui des, videto. Consider to whom you might give something.
  • 31. Nihil temere credideris. Believe nothing rashly.
  • 54. Pauca in convivio loquere. Say little at a party.
  • 57. Minime iudica. Don’t judge at all. [esp. for the Syriac version of the second maxim given above]

And finally, two lines from Leonard Cohen, “Waiting for the Miracle” (from The Future):

If you’re squeezed for information,

That’s when you’ve got to play it dumb.

So then, here’s to sharing and giving, but doing so with care, so advised from Aḥiqar to Cohen! I do hope, though, that you will share any related maxims from antiquity (or later) that come to mind in the comments!


James M. Lindenberger, The Aramaic Proverbs of Ahiqar, Johns Hopkins Near Eastern Studies (Baltimore and London, 1983).

The gnomai of Menander will be found in Dindorf’s Aristophanis comœdiæ…accedunt Menandri et Philemonis fragmenta (Paris, 1846); the monosticha Catonis are easily discoverable online.

A popular piece on colophons   Leave a comment

The newest issue of HMML’s biannual magazine Illuminations has recently been printed and mailed out. Among other things in it, you’ll find a feature on colophons that I wrote (pp. 4-6), prefaced by a related item from my colleague Matthew Heintzelman. If you’d like to peruse it and you don’t have a hard copy, here’s a link:

Illuminations, Spring 2012

Share freely, and as always, comments are welcome.

Posted May 24, 2012 by adam_bremer-mccollum in Codicology, Colophons

Tagged with , ,

Moving from printed to handwritten texts   2 comments

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was no printing, and students learned to read and to write in almost the same breath(s): the results of their hands matched the patterns of their eyes. Nowadays, of course, students in almost every case learn to read new languages with printed books open in front of them and nothing handwritten to be found. It easily goes unrecognized or unremembered that handwriting is part of a language taken in full, and that really both learner-readers and learner-writers of it do well to pay close attention to accepted written forms of the language, that is, handwriting. I quote T.F. Mitchell, who penned a manual for Arabic handwriting:

It is a curious fact that students of Arabic have in the past strangely neglected those elements of grammar without which there would be no grammar, viz. the letters. … we may go further and say that the number of those who write Arabic in an acceptable manner is remarkably small. We may note, too, in passing that handwriting shortcomings are not confined to students of languages having exotic scripts; a letter written in French by an English scholar of French rarely, if ever looks French, and if the language had been, say, a Scandinavian one, the foreign origin of the writer would have been even more immediately revealed. There exists, then, it would seem, a definite hiatus at the beginning of all language instruction which a systematic study of written forms would do much to remove. This hiatus is at its widest when the habitué of a given alphabet is confronted with another, when, for example, the user of a native roman scripts is called upon to write Arabic. (Writing Arabic, pp. 2-3)

He is pointing to two possible problems: one, in the case that the new language uses a script closely related to that of the student’s own language, of assuming that genetic relatedness of script equals identity of script, and two, in the case that the new language uses a script unrelated to that of the student’s language, of simply writing on paper (when that is even still done) in a script exemplified by printed type in that language’s script. I cannot forget the opposition I have encountered when teaching Hebrew from some students reticent to separate their Hebrew writing from the printed Hebrew in front of them, but with Hebrew, as with Arabic and other languages, there really is a distinction, in this case between modern cursive script and what is commonly printed in books (then there is also Rashi script). Of course, with Hebrew and with other languages, typefaces were first cut and their style later developed at least partly in recognition and remembrance of handwriting, but even if one wants to use a more monumental style of writing closer to that often found in type, it is more genuine to find some such hand to mimic, rather than a type based on that kind of hand. In our own mother-tongues (assuming that’s the language we get schooled in) we learn handwriting and printed letters as having different shapes, especially in the case of cursive writing, and, while there may be some conscious notice of this discrepancy when we first learn the two kinds of letters, for most of us that cognizance soon vanishes.

Other than giving attention to handwriting to be a more complete student of a language (foreign languages and our own), are there other reasons? Quintilian thought it a necessary concern for orators (Inst. orat. 1.1.28; Latin available here, English translation here, somewhat altered below):

Non est aliena res, quae fere ab honestis neglegi solet, cura bene ac velociter scribendi. Nam cum sit in studiis praecipuum, quoque solo verus ille profectus et altis radicibus nixus paretur, scribere ipsum, tardior stilus cogitationem moratur, rudis et confusus intellectu caret: unde sequitur alter dictandi quae transferenda sunt labor.

The art of writing well and quickly is not unimportant for our purpose, though it is generally disregarded by distinguished people. Writing is of the utmost importance in the study which we have under consideration and by its means alone can true and deeply rooted proficiency be obtained. But a sluggish pen delays our thoughts, while an unformed and illiterate lacks understanding, a circumstance which necessitates another task, namely the dictation of what is to be copied.

He’s talking about orators, but it’s not a big leap from the specific task of oration to other activities attendant to life as a well-educated human being. It is true, of course, that a great many people now write very little in longhand, chained as so many of us woefully are to the beguiling convenience of computers, tablets, and phones. While this is not the place to fully trace it out, there is some kind of analogy between printed books (and even electronic books) and digital text entry on the one hand and reading manuscripts and longhand writing on the other. We must remember, too, that at different points in time for different languages and parts of the world writing itself was a new technology.

Particular orthography in use at a given time or in a given region (note, for example the que in the Latin sentence quoted below) can, it is true, be gotten by printed editions — assuming, at least, that the texts’ editors aren’t overly normalizing — but graphic ductus, of course, is only the privilege of manuscripts (or inscriptions). (Yes, there is a ductus to printed letters, too, but they’re not our concern here, as they’re a given in language instruction these days anyway.) Printed type is a leveler of sorts: while there can be variation in type, there are multiple copies of the same type; with handwriting, it’s all at least a little different, even when written by the same person. The gap between handwriting and printed type varies from language to language, and from script to script within one language. Armenian erkat’agir for uncial and bolorgir for miniscule are not at all unlike their printed cousins, but nōtrgir and especially šłagir show less resemblance to printed type. If we turn to Greek and Latin, many documents on papyri, for example, are written in scripts that require much practice and patience to read (note the items in the bibliography below) when compared with the fonts of printed texts.

The pithy saying qui scribit, bis legit will be known to some readers (see this post elsewhere for a little discussion of it). The monk Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) in his De laude scriptorum (ch. 6; pp. 60-61 in the ed. listed below), has the same idea in more words:

Fortius enim, que scribimus, menti imprimimus, quia scribentes et legentes ea cum morula tractamus.

Every word we write is imprinted more forcefully on our minds since we have to take our time while writing and reading.

In my previous post, I hinted at the manuscript work of our intellectual forebears. A perusal of William Wright’s recently published letters (ed. Bernhard Maier, see below) will illustrate how often he copied manuscripts for his colleagues in other parts of the world, as will for other scholars manuscript catalogs of European collections, which sometimes have copies of manuscripts from elsewhere in the hand of scholars whose names we know well. It’s hard to doubt that there be some utility in copying by hand manuscripts, even in part, even though this is hardly a necessity any more as it was before the days of relatively easy and inexpensive photography. Close copying of a script hitherto at least somewhat unfamiliar can be very instructive. Thorough exposure to one particular scribe, too, or at least one particular style seems most advisable. (A similar view led Janet Johnson, in her Demotic Egyptian grammar, to use the work of just one scribe in scans as examples for each chapter.) Perhaps before that, reading manuscripts of known texts, especially with a printed edition at hand for comparison might be especially helpful at earlier stages when students don’t know the language as well as they later will.

Where do we find samples of manuscripts in different scripts for perusal, study, and copying? There are, of course, myriads of freely available inscriptions and manuscripts in a great variety of languages available online: αἰτεῖτε καὶ δοθήσεται ὑμῖν, ζητεῖτε καὶ εὑρήσετε, κρούετε καὶ ἀνοιγήσεται ὑμῖν. Also in the previous post I mentioned some manuscript facsimiles published by former generations of scholars. Fortunately, these are not only represented by the past. An extremely fine — not to mention extremely heavy (but moderately priced for its great quality and worth) — recent example is the Album of Armenian Paleography (ed. M. Stone et al.), which is notable for going into the 19th and (in the section “archival documents”) 20th centuries; a letter written in Armenian by the famous French linguist Antoine Meillet is even included. Specifically for more modern kinds of handwriting, I already mentioned Mitchell’s book on writing Arabic. I have beside me a reprint of Witter’s Deutsch-Englische Schreib- und Lese-Fibel und Neues Erstes Lesebuch für Amerikanische Freischulen (St. Louis, 1881), which teaches handwriting exactly alongside of Frakturschrift to American students studying German. Students learning Russian, too, find themselves in special need of instruction for the language as handwritten when compared to printed or electronic texts, and at least one modern textbook I know of points this fact out. Finally, two posts back I gave several examples of Greek typography and especially noted the ligatures based on Greek handwriting in Byzantine manuscripts; there is some video and explanations showing the basics of this kind of writing here.

As a simple example in closing, here are some images from an Arabic manuscript I recently cataloged, CFMM 274, an early twentieth century manuscript of hagiographic texts. Anyone who has lived in an Arabophone culture and grown accustomed to handwritten notes, letters, etc. will have little difficulty reading this scribe’s handwriting, but students who have spent most of their time with printed Arabic materials will find themselves facing more difficulty. Printed Arabic type is based on clear letter shapes that have a ductus with obvious beginning, middle, and end. This is the case, too, with some manuscript hands, Naskh, for example, but in the hand in these images, it is at least in some cases easier to think in terms of words being written than distinct letter shapes strung together. The teeth of some letters (e.g. sīn and šīn) so noticeable in Arabic type (and Naskh and other scripts), is here almost completely absent; single dots are the same, but double dots are a line and a triad of dots is a (sometimes) curvier line. There is, I think, no real shortcut to getting familiar with harder-to-read hands: one must slog along, preferably with a text not too difficult in terms of vocabulary and content, often stopping to compare this word with that elsewhere on the page; our knowns inform our unknowns, then becoming knowns for further elucidation of other unknowns (I’m sure Seneca, Boileau or the like has said this more finely, but no place comes immediately to mind).

CFMM 274, p. 1

The title and first sentence read قصة القديس الكامل مار اهرون بقلم تلميذه بولس. في كل جيل وفي كل حين يتلألأ الصديقون محبّو الله.

CFMM 274, p. 96

Here is the title of another text in the manuscript: قصة القديس مار اولوغ احد رفاق القديس مار اوجين.

CFMM 274, p. 177

Finally, these are a few lines from the life of Būṯāmīna (or Būtāmīna) — I’ve not yet identified this female saint, but in addition to this text, we have a Garšūnī copy (MGMT 157, pp. 42-44), also late, in which she is called Būṭāmīnā; I’ll be grateful for any other information on her. The text reads: في رؤيا بعد موتها بثلاثة ايام وبيدها اكليل وضعته على رأسي وهي تقول لي « ستكون معي بعد قليل » وفي اليوم الثاني قطع رأسه بعد ما اعترق بيسوع المسيح اعتراقًا جيدًا.

The easy access to quality images in great quantity of manuscripts brought about by digital photography, the internet, etc. means that students and teachers have right at their disposal a slew of manuscripts with which to practice both their reading and their writing, not to mention their literary and linguistic acumen. We are no longer pressed to feed ourselves on printed editions merely, and we would do well to make ourselves quite at home with manuscripts as often as possible, and that means tolerance and familiarity with a broad range of handwriting in the languages we work with.


Klaus Arnold, ed., and Roland Behrendt, tr., Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes (De laude scriptorum) (Lawrence, Kansas, 1974).

Malachi Beit-Arié et al., Specimens of Mediaeval Hebrew Scripts, 3 vols. [the last still forthcoming, I think] (Jerusalem, 1987-).

Janet H. Johnson, Thus Wrote ʿOnchsheshonqy: An Introductory Grammar of Demotic, 3d ed. (Chicago, 2ooo). Downloadable here.

Bernhard Maier, ed., Semitic Studies in Victorian Britain: A Portrait of William Wright and His World Through His Letters, Arbeitsmaterialien zum Orient 26 (Würzburg, 2011).

T.F. Mitchell, Writing Arabic: A Practical Introduction to Ruqʿah Script (London, 1953, with reprints).

C.H. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands, 350 B.C.-A.D. 400 (Oxford, 1956).

Richard Seider, Paläographie der griechischen Papyri, 2 vols. (Stuttgart, 1967).

________, Paläographie der lateinischen Papyri, 3 vols. (Stuttgart, 1972).

Michael E. Stone, Dickran Kouymjian, and Henning Lehmann, Album of Armenian Paleography (Copenhagen, 2002).

Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography (Oxford, 1912).

R.G. Turner, Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (Princeton, 1971).

Siegbert Uhlig, Äthiopische Paläographie (1988); ET, Introduction to Ethiopian Palaeography (1990).

Ada Yardeni, The Book of Hebrew Script (London, 2002).

A plea for the inclusion of manuscripts in language teaching   3 comments

(Reposted here for easy access and future convenience from the HMML Chronicle, Aug 4, 2011; see here.)

I hope the title is not too grandiose for the little petition here offered: my intent can be made clear in few words, but the practical working out of its actual implementation will naturally require more time and purposeful planning.

Manuscript study has been and will continue to be the focus of codicological learning and the preparation of text editions (however one might envision this latter task), but does it not, too, have a broader setting in the study of the languages and literatures of this or that community? From the title of this post, it is obvious that my answer to that question is in the affirmative. But is there any justification for this answer among our past masters? To state the question differently, is there plausible evidence that the expertise of our philological forebears owes anything to their thorough experience with handling manuscripts? At the very least in answer to this question we can point to the fact that some scholars widely acknowledged as masters were deeply acquainted with manuscripts. Now this does not prove that their skill and acumen is due strictly to their manuscript work, but it would be foolhardy to imagine that this activity did not at least in some way augment whatever philological ability they possessed beforehand. I need only underline the names of, to mention a few, William Cureton, William Wright, August Dillmann,[[1]] Theodor Nöldeke,[[2]] Anton Baumstark, Henri Hyvernat, and, more recently than these others, Michel Van Esbroeck. The last named scholar, it is said, learned to write Arabic by tracing the projected words from Sinai manuscripts in a microfilm reader, and thus provides a very practical example of using manuscripts at an early stage of linguistic education.[[3]] .

A typical situation for students of ancient languages, I think, is for them to get what they know especially through “book learning” first of all, with more or less guidance by an instructor or professor; that is, they learn grammatical rudiments and then start in reading some texts. (I don’t enter into here the worthwhile discussion of the relative merits of a more inductive versus a more deductive method of instruction.) The rest of their formal philological education generally continues just this way: reading text after text after text, some of these meriting and getting more attention than others, depending on the student’s interests. The venue in which a student studies and the professors with whom he or she reads will largely determine how much exposure to manuscripts that student gains. While access to manuscripts—for everyone, but especially for students—formerly required more effort than is now the case, none of us really have any excuse any longer for not fully utilizing manuscripts more than was our past wont. While some manuscripts still remain very difficult or impossible to get copies of, especially in certain middle eastern collections, we can do what we can. If one is studying a particular text, it may not be feasible to look at every manuscript or even the most important ones, but especially for students, it is immensely helpful to work with manuscripts as much as possible and as early in their philological career as possible. This is the case both for unedited texts and those with editions; in fact, in the latter scenario, students may, especially with a more experienced scholar’s guidance, learn important things about textual study, with things learned both negatively from poorly done editions and positively for those more expertly executed.

In earlier days of modern scholarship, the chrestomathy was a regular tool for students making their early forays into the study of this or that language and literature. Perhaps today’s students and those of tomorrow, too, might find profit in some sort of chrestomathia manuscripta to use at the same stage of their scholarly career, but very preferably earlier rather than later. Such chrestomathiae are not an entirely new idea: witness Hyvernat’s Album de paléographie copte pour server à l’introduction paléographique des Actes des martyrs de l’Égypte (Paris, 1888), Tisserant’s Specimina Codicum Orientalium (Bonn, 1914; it is telling that this volume appeared in the series called Tabulae in usum scholarum!), and pp. 401-410 of Cheikho’s Chrestomathia Arabica (Beirut, 1897). Jan Just Witkam’s excellent paleography site, with many Arabic and Persian manuscript specimens, and one in Malay, is a recent example of something students might add to their arsenal of study; Witkam provides a few folios from each manuscript together with a complete transcription of the selection, similar to what Cheikho had done in his Chrestomathia. I hope this little plea might serve as a call for more such tools to be put together and, more importantly, to be utilized in the classroom and the study!

[[1]] See Ernst Hammerschmidt, Äthiopistik an deutschen Universitäten (Wiesbaden, 1968), pp. 17-20.
[[2]] C. Snouck Hurgronje, “Theodor Nöldeke, 2. März 1836 − 25. Dezember 1930,” ZDMG 85 (1931): 239-281, pp. 247-248, 254-255. (Available online here; this Nekrolog includes a fine picture of Nöldeke.)
[[3]] Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, “Michel van Esbroeck, SJ (1934-2003), le collègue et l’ami,” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 2 (2005): 409-440, p. 410. (Available online here.)

Greek typography from some of our rare books   2 comments

First, an apologia: this post is not directly tied to the regular fare here, but in the belief that the appreciation of cool books is not too uncommon a faculty, I can in perfectly good conscience share these images with you here. And who doesn’t love Greek? In this case, let’s recast Vergil’s “Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis” to “Ecce ego complector Danaos monumenta ferentis!” (Note the meter!)

While he was not the first printer of Greek, Aldo Manuzio stands out clearly as one of the most zealous philhellenes among early printers. Among the issue of his press are, for example, Constantinus Lascaris’ Erotemata (1495), Aristotle (1495), and Aristophanes (with scholia, 1498). The Erotemata, a kind of grammatical catechism, — Chrysoloras wrote a similar work with the same title — had been published earlier in Milan, 1476, the first completely Greek book printed; Constantinus Lascaris is not to be confused with another Greek scholar of the period, Janus Lascaris. Aldo dedicated serious attention to publicizing his plan of Greek printing and encouraged purchasers to buy so that more Greek books would follow. The Aldine Press, during Aldo’s life and after in the hands of his family, was not the only publishing house interested in Greek, of course. The only other one I’ll mention here is that of the Estienne (Stephanus) family (Henri, his son Robert, and his grandson Henri the younger).

As with Latin, early type in Greek, in some fonts at least, was made to mimic a certain kind of handwriting, one which had a plethora of ligatures. Proctor (cited below, pp. 12-13) describes what this mimicry entailed:

In the Venetian type the appearance of continuity is sought by an elaborate system of ligatures, two, three and four letters being commonly cast in one piece, and in an immense variety of forms and combinations, so that the number of sorts found in the two books exceeds twelve hundred, and even this is probably far from representing the fount in its completed state as projected. The effect was unsatisfactory; because the ‘case’ was complicated to an extraordinary extent by the enormous quantity of boxes required, and the use of so many ligatures resulted (in practice, thought not of necessity) in splitting up the longer words into disconnected syllables, a result which makes the books very difficult to read even after considerable experience of them.

Some, but certainly not all, of this difficulty remained for both compositor (typesetter) and reader well into the 18th century. The first time I really took notice of it was several years ago in Daniel Wyttenbach’s (1746-1820) edition of Plutarch, printed at Oxford. Not until, it seems, the Didot-Porsonian types of the 19th century did a more separate and straightforward Greek type become the norm still in wide use today. There is to me, though, a kind of beauty in the convoluted knots of ink found in the ligatures of older printings; no, I would not want it for rapid reading of an unfamiliar text, but there are times when one can appreciate a more familiar text in this type. (Note that Proctor is fairly unsympathetic toward the Aldine type and its subsequent influence; more recent discussion has not been so unfavorable.)

The examples that follow, all from the collections of HMML or Saint John’s University, are from the 15th and 16th centuries, followed by images of two fine press editions from the early 20th century. Since most or all of the abbreviations and ligatures encountered in these printings occur, too, in manuscripts, some of the handbooks to Greek paleography may be useful in deciphering them (e.g. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible, p. 30), but the most comprehensive list, for printed works in particular, that I know of is the work of G.F. von Ostermann and A.E. Giegengack listed below. Finally, it should be pointed out that all this is not of any mere historical or aesthetic interest. There are still occasions where one is required to consult volumes printed with this kind of type for everyday research: not long ago while studying some hagiographic material in Christian Palestinian Aramaic I had to compare a Greek text in F. Combefis’ Illustrium Christi martyrum lecti triumphi, vetustis Graecorum monumentis consignati (Paris, 1659), which, while not as difficult to read as some ligatured typefaces, nevertheless requires some acclimation for those who typically read Porsonian or similar type.

ΙΩΑΝΝΗΣ Ο ΓΡΑΜΜΑΤΙΚΟΣ ΕΙΣ ΤΟ ΠΕΡΙ ΓΕΝΕΣΕΩΣ, ΚΑΙ ΦΘΟΡΑΣ. ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ Ο ΑΦΡΟΔΙΣΙΕΥΣ ΕΙΣ ΤΑ ΜΕΤΕΩΡΟΛΟΓΙΚΑ. Ο ΑΥΤΟΣ ΠΕΡΙ ΜΙΞΕΩΣ. Ioannes Grammaticus in libros De generatione, et interitu. Alexander Aphrodisiensis in Meteorologica. Idem De mixtione (Venice, 1527) at the Aldine press, under Andreas Asulanus. The title page has a warning against the book being printed elsewhere in Venice or of being sold elsewhere once printed.

Alexander of Aphrodisias on Aristotle’s Meteorologica

ΔΙΟΝΥΣΙΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΑΛΙΚΑΡΝΑΣΣΕΩΣ ΡΩΜΑΙΚΗΣ ΑΡΧΑΙΟΛΟΓΙΑΣ ΒΙΒΛΙΑ ΔΕΚΑ. Dionysii Halicarnassei antiquitatum Romanorum Lib. X (Paris, 1546) bound with ΔΙΟΝΥΣΙΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΑΛΙΚΑΡΝΑΣΣΕΩΣ ΠΕΡΙ ΣΥΝΘΕΣΕΩΣ ΟΝΟΜΑΤΩΝ, ΠΡΟΣ ΡΟΥΦΟΝ. Τοῦ αὐτοῦ τῆς ῥητορικῆς τέχνης κεφάλαιά τινα, πρὸς ἐχεκράτην. Τοῦ αὐτοῦ περὶ τῶν θουκυδίδου ἰδιωμάτων, πρὸς ἀμμαῖον. Dionysii Halicarnassei de compositione, seu orationis partium apta inter se collocatione, ad Rufum. Eiusdem, artis Rhetoricae capita quaedam, ad Echecratem. Item quo genere dicendi sit usus Thucydides, ad Ammaeum (Paris, 1547) at the press of Robert Estienne (Stephanus). Not listed on any title page, but also included are the sections from Dionysius’ work On the Attic Orators that deal with Lysias and Isocrates.

Dion. Hal., On the Style of Thucydides

Isaac Casaubon, Strabonis rerum geographicarum libri xvii (Paris, 1620). With the Latin translation of Guilielmus Xylander (a.k.a. Wilhelm Holtzman, 1532-1576). Casaubon was responsible for the first critical edition of Strabo (1587?), but this is a later edition. This edition (others too?) has a Latin poem on Casaubon’s edition of Strabo by Theodore Beza (1519-1605), and two shorter poems, one in Greek, one in Latin, by an author I am unable to identify. Casaubon’s text-critical notes are in the margins, and his commentary comes at the end of the book.

Casaubon’s Strabo

Marsilio Ficino, Plotini Platonicorum facile coryphaei operum philosophicorum omnium libri liv in sex enneades distributi, (Basel, 1580). Contains the Greek text, Ficino’s Latin translation in parallel, and commentary.

Ficino, Plotinus

Biblia Sacra Polyglotta, 6 vols., edited by Brian Walton with the assistance of many other scholars.

The beginning of Gen 22 from the London Polyglot

ΑΙΣΧΥΛΟΥ ΟΡΕΣΤΕΙΑ (London, 1904). Typeset by Robert Proctor, who was mentioned above. According to the colophon, printing was finished in March. The Greek type is based very closely on the Alcalá Greek typeface used for the famous Complutensian Polyglot (1514), with some augmentation to make up for some original deficiencies, such as a full set of accents.

Proctor, Agamemnon, first lines

ΟΜΗΡΟΥ ΠΟΙΗΣΙΣ. ΙΛΙΑΣ (Bremen, 1923), edited by Edward Schwartz at the Bremer Presse. A small number of text-critical notes (in Latin) are placed at the end of the book. This copy is no. 300 of 615. The Odyssey was issued the next year, and HMML also has that volume. The typeface of these volumes was first printed at this time: “adhibitis typis quorum forma nunc primum inuenta et excusa est”, in the words of the colophon to the Iliad edition.

The opening lines of the Iliad


Nicolas Barker, Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script and Type in the Fifteenth Century, 2d ed. (New York, 1992).

Martin Davies, Aldus Manutius: Printer and Publisher of Renaissance Venice (Malibu, 1995).

Greek Font Society

Martin Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius: Business and Scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford, 1978).

G.F. von Ostermann and A.E. Giegengack, “Printer’s & Translator’s Elementary Information on Classical & Modern Greek and Abbreviations in Early Greek Printed Books,” originally in Languages: For the Use of Printers and Translators, 3d ed. (Washington, DC, 1936), reprinted at the end of Al.N. Oikonomides, Abbreviations in Greek: Inscriptions, Papyri, Manuscripts, and Early Printed Books (Chicago, 1974).

Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship from 1300 to 1850 (Oxford, 1976).

Robert Proctor, The Printing of Greek in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1900).

Nigel Wilson, From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance (Baltimore, 1992).

________, Mediaeval Greek Bookhands: Examples Selected from Greek Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries Medieval Academy Books 81 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973, repr. 1995).

%d bloggers like this: