Greek Manuscripts

The collecting of manuscripts by the University of Oxford (as distinct from individual colleges) goes back to the construction of the room above the Divinity School to house the manuscript books donated by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester in the 15th century. Only a handful of Duke Humfrey’s books survive today; but the University’s library, ever since its re-foundation by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602, has continued to acquire medieval manuscripts, mostly through gift and bequest. By the end of the 17th century the Bodleian was already established as the most important repository of Greek manuscripts in the British Isles. In fact, the majority of the Bodleian’s manuscripts of Greek classical authors date from the 15th and 16th centuries, some of them written in Italy by immigrant Greek scribes. Amoung the Bodleian's treasures is MS. Laud Gr. 35, a manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles from around 600 CE. In addition to this manuscript, the Bodleian will be digitising all 244 volumes of the Barocci collection (see Nigel Wilson's essay for details).

The exceptional importance of the Vatican Library’s collection of Greek manuscripts is due less to its size — though its collection of about 5,000 Greek volumes is rivaled in this respect by only a handful of other libraries — than to the quality of the materials it preserves. Many of the library's manuscripts are immensely valuable, either for the historical importance of the texts themselves or for the beauty of the production. Examples include works by Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Hippocrates, as well as manuscripts of the New Testament and of the Church Fathers, many of them richly decorated with Byzantine miniatures.

One of the objectives of the project for digitisation made possible by The Polonsky Foundation is to make available images of some of the Greek manuscripts in the Bodleian collection, which is one of the most important in Western Europe. The committee which oversees the project decided that at this stage the focus should be on the first and numerically largest acquisition, the collection formed by Francesco Barocci (1537-1604), an astronomer who had trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities. The manuscripts were bequeathed to his grandson Iacopo and were purchased for the library in 1629 by William Herbert, the 3rd earl of Pembroke, who paid £700 for them. 

The 244 volumes, although they do not include manuscripts of fundamental importance for the leading classical authors or church fathers, nevertheless form a significant collection. Many of them throw light on the history of education. A number are textbooks of grammar used by the Byzantines and later by Italian intellectuals during the Renaissance in order to master the complexities of the classical language. Both groups would have needed  Aristotle’s treatises on logic, which are also represented. Some of the volumes bring us near to the authors they transmit. An almost complete collection of the letters of the scholar and patriarch Photius (c.810-893) (MS. Barocci 217), was possibly transcribed during the author’s lifetime. A collection of texts relating to the history of the Church (MS. 142) clearly served as the primary source material for a 14th century scholar who compiled his own history of the Church. A commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew (MS. 156) is the author’s autograph, signed and dated A.D. 1344. 

A particularly valuable aspect of the current programme is that  the images now being prepared will help with the identification of scribal hands and thus contribute to a better understanding of the transmission of texts and intellectual history. For instance, it has recently been possible to identify the scribe of MS. 92, which contains polemical treatises directed against the Latin Church by George Scholarios; it turns out that this copy was written by his principal secretary, and Scholarios himself made one or two corrections in the margin. Further research will surely lead to other discoveries.


Nigel G. Wilson is an Emeritus Fellow in Classics at Lincoln College at the University of Oxford.