Saturday, July 11, 2009

Codices latini antiquiores --

-- also known as CLA, edited by E A Lowe. It's a description of old Latin books; more specifically, Latin literary manuscripts from before the ninth century. It excludes "--with certain exceptions -- all business or official acts and documents, graffiti or other casual scribblings." (vol. 1, vii.)

I'd been eagerly searching high and low for reasonably-priced copies of the CLA. Finally, yesterday, I got Vol I: The Vatican Cityvia inter-library loan.

It's not what I expected. I had gathered from library catalogue descriptions and such that the volumes were 45 centimeters tall. Somehow I had managed to overlook in the same descriptions the number of pages per volume. I was expecting huge heavy tombstones full of fine print, probably all in Latin, of tens of thousands of manuscripts per volume.

But no, there are xii+44 pages in this first volume, plus 35 pages of illustrations, and the other volumes seem to be of a comparable size, and several pages of these 44 are taken up by bibliographies, and the print isn't particularly fine, and it's mostly in English. A total of 34 pages of this first volume are devoted to the sort of description I had imagined. Facing each of these 34 pages are full-sized photographic reproductions of parts of the manuscripts being described. 4 reproductions to a big page, sometimes more than one reproduction of the same manuscript. 117 in all in the first volume. Counting palimspests as 2, the primary and the secondary. There are a lot of palimspsests in this volume.

Of the 117 manuscripts described and photographed here, I counted 24 from pagan authors: Terrence, Cicero, Sallust, Vergil, Livy, Probus Seneca, Lucan, Juvenal, Gellius, Fronto, Symmachus. These manuscripts account for 20 and one-half percent of the total. Besides these 24, I'm not sure how to categorize a few others. Irony being what it is, I would not be at all surprised if the percentage of pagan authors described by the CLA in collections outside the Vatican were much lower. I would not be surprised, because, in the period before AD 800, there was an especially fervent effort in Western Europe to spread the learning of the Bible and of Christian authors, and an especially widespread -- although by no means universal -- condemnation of pagan Classical antiquity, including all of the writing of all of the individual authors I listed above. Books were burned. (Others were written over and then later rediscovered in palimpsest form.) It has been asserted, although it is controversial and remains unproven, that Gregory the Great, Pope from 590 to 604, ordered all copies of Livy, listed above, which could be found to be destroyed. It's unproven, but it seems to me that if someone, Gregory or not, had been busily engaged in such destruction, it would help to explain why only 35 books, plus a few fragments, of such a popular author as Livy survive today, when as late as AD 401 the pagan patrician Symmachus, listed above, was busily engaged in making an edition of all 142 books. Symmachus appears in CLA, vol 1, in palimpsest form, as does a long palimpsest fragment of Livy's book 91 which had been gone from view for a long, long, long, long time. Whether or not it was the active destruction of Gregory the Great, and/or some other churchmen, which accounts for the disappearance of almost 107 books of Livy, which seems likely to me, there is no doubt that many Classical texts have been restored to the world through the effort of churchmen like the great 19th-century paleograher and specialist in palimpsest, Cardinal Angelo Mai, who worked under the instructions of and with the direct blessing of the Vatican, and that many Popes, and countless among their followers, have been great friends to and supporters of Classical scholarship. The Church giveth in this regard, it doth not only take away. Its ways are mysterious sometimes.

As I said, I was surprised to get a general idea of how many Latin literary manuscripts from before AD 800 survive, that is to say: I'm surprised by how few there are. I was also surprised when I found out that only 31 classical Greek tragedies survive, by only three authors. In that case also I had assumed that the number was much higher. It is naturally disappointing in each case to find that the numbers are lower than one had thought, but there is an ironic upside, as well: it emphasizes the significance of each new find. And new finds are made occasionally, papyrii in the Middle Eastern desert, palimpsests in existing texts.

Foolishly, I dream of finding the missing books of Livy in some place like a garage sale. Yes, these are the kinds of daydreams I have. Many experts snicker good-naturedly at dreams of finding any more significant amounts of Classical texts anywhere -- say, an entire lost book or 10 of Livy, or an entire lost play by Sophocles. (It is said that Sophocles wrote over 100 plays. We have 7 today, plus fragments of others.) They're the experts, I'm not one of them. Still, to my inexpert mind it seems irrational to dismiss the possibility of some really huge find, someday, somewhere: in a papyrus in Egypt or Israel, in a palimpsest in a library, among the possessions of an eccentric recluse. As recently as the 1980's they found a previously-unknown fragment of Livy's book 11, dating from the 5th century, while excavating the site of the monastery of Naqlun in Egypt. Yeah, so the fragment was only 40 words long, that doesn't mean that the next find won't be 40,000 words long.

So, yeah, the experts, some of them, think I'm daft. Other experts are as daft as I am when it comes to hoping for new discoveries. Maybe we are quite mad, who's to say.

I cannot emphasize enough how inexpert I am in such things. I've never been near an archaeological dig. I probably never will be, as I intensely dislike dirt and strong sunlight. I also have never had any inclination to study old manuscripts after someone else has gone to the trouble of finding them, cleaning them up, restoring a palimpsest if they contain one, etc. I have always been content to wait until they are transcribed into editions with contemporary typefaces and punctuation and so forth. And I had seen pictures of manuscripts similar to the one reproduced in this volume of CLA -- in some cases, pictures of the same manuscripts. For some, reason, when I saw the pictures of manuscripts in the CLA, I became interested in them in a way I had not been before. They're illegible to me at the moment. Look at this:

Can YOU read that? I can't. It's not one of the Vatican manuscripts, but it's similar. It's in the collection of the Library of Congress, which describes it as a page from a manuscript of Vergil's Georgics and Bucolics, written in the 5th or 6th century. Sorry, I was looking for a linkable image of one of the manuscripts from the book I'm talking about, but it was slim pickings and I didn't feel like looking all day. My reaction to this sort of manuscript before yesterday was, It's purty, but I'll stick to my Oxford Classical Texts editionwith its modern typefaces and punctuation, thanks just the same. (Punctuation as we know it evolved slowly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.) Now, when I'm old enough to need glasses to read lots of things, now suddenly these strange, exotic old things catch my interest.


  1. I can read this. I also own a copy of this book purchased for a course in Latin paleography in the 70s. You're right; the book is terrible.

    If you tell me what era and language or script interests you, I will help you find high quality images on the Internet.

    1. I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "You're right; the book is terrible." The CLA was not what I had expected, but it was not a disappointment to me. On the contrary, I like it very much and that's why I blogged about it.

      I wrote the post above in 2009. More recently I blogged here -- -- about a book which is similar in format to the CLA but which covers Latin manuscripts of eras from the Vatican library, grouped by handwriting styles: specimina codicum latinorum vaticanorum, the 2nd edition from the 1930's, still in print. Black & white photographs instead of color, that's the only shortcoming I see in this magnificent volume.

    2. not sure what led me here. I have a longstanding interest in Latin manuscripts. in my youth I was privileged to know and work with Paul Oscar Kristeller and Frederick Cranz. I also knew hans Krause. forty years later I am again working with 600 year old books. I also have handled and read more incunabula than any but a handful of librarians or curators I'm sorry I misunderstood your posting. and I congratulate you upon your erudition.

    3. Upon reflection, I can see how my post easily could be misunderstood. Thank you for your interest in my blog. I'm not an academic -- undiagnosed autism greatly hindered my attempts at an academic career -- and so I don't meet people who share my interest in Latin all that often.