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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

05/2013 manuscript  of the month

A manuscript sets sail

”… around noon we disembarked on the Island of Giresun and then we reached [the city of] Giresun, and when we arrived there we saw that one side of the castle had been destroyed and two houses were destroyed, too […]. Such an earthquake had never happened in this region before.” These sentences are taken from a diary-like note that was written in a blank space in this Greek manuscript. Similar notes, unskilled illustrations or writing exercises are scattered throughout the book. They show that later owners of the manuscript obviously used it not only for reading but also for other purposes. What can those unusual additions tell us about the history and use of this manuscript?

The original scribe of the volume, Manuel Malaxos, was a professional scribe and calligrapher in the 16th century, who copied numerous works in Constantinople and Italy. The manuscript in question was written in Constantinople between 1574 and 1577. An embossed dark brown leather cover protects the book, which consists of 284 paper leaves and is approximately the size of an exercise book.

The three texts included in the volume are the zoological work Synathroisis by Damaskenos Studites, the Chronicle of 1570 and a History of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. They are written in the Greek vernacular, which implies that the book was designed to reach a wider audience.

Malaxos obviously intended to provide illustrations of the animals discussed in the Synathroisis and therefore left a blank space after each chapter. These illustrations, however, were never carried out and later owners or readers of the manuscript apparently interpreted this as an invitation to make their own written contributions and, in some cases, even recorded their personal experiences. These additional notes display greatly differing levels of penmanship: one may come across experienced hands alongside rather clumsy or sometimes even misspelled examples. There is also a great diversity in content, including simple illustrations, writing exercises and pen trials.

Aesthetically these insertions are in stark contrast to Malaxos’ calligraphic writing. Later owners or readers, however, obviously had no inhibitions about filling the numerous blank spaces in the unfinished manuscript with their own notes and scribbles. In most cases we will probably never find out who these writers were. But there are two manuscript owners who disclosed their identities, probably because they were aware of the importance of their insertions for future readers.

Fig. 1: The travels between 1658 und 1669 as noted in the manuscript.> Enlarge

First, a certain person named Giannoulis left an important note in the manuscript regarding its history. This owner considered himself unworthy to own such a manuscript and therefore decided to donate it to a monastery where it could be read more often. This interesting statement proves that Giannoulis considered the book as a precious object, which should not only be owned but also used by as many people as possible. As already mentioned, this respectful attitude towards the manuscript was not necessarily shared by other owners.

The second name we find in the manuscript is that of a certain Eleutherios Katharos. The manuscript came into his possession about 80 years after it had been completed. Katharos left 17 entries in different parts of the manuscript. The entries are similar to those of a diary, beginning with the date and in some cases even stating the hour of a certain event. They span a period of almost exactly eleven years, starting on 12 May 1658 with the last entry dated 11 May 1669. Thus we find out that Katharos was a crop trader, who travelled by ship along the southern coast of the Black Sea from Constantinople in the west to Sürmene in the east. In one entry he complains of not being able to sell all of his wheat. There are also some accountings – which are not always correct – that he may have written during his business trips.

Katharos witnessed the aforementioned earthquake while travelling from Trabzon to Giresun. “On 5 August, a Wednesday, we left Trabzon on board the ship of Davif Reiz. […] There was a storm at sea and we were battered by the storm the whole night and all day and night on Thursday, and we did not manage to disembark on the Island of Giresun. […] [T]here was a major earthquake, and around noon we disembarked on the Island of Giresun and then we reached [the city of] Giresun, and when we arrived there we saw that one side of the castle had been destroyed and two houses were destroyed, too […]. Such an earthquake had never happened in this region before.”

Maybe Katharos was aware of the historical significance of this natural disaster and therefore decided to state his name at the end of the record. Additionally he noted down the date of the earthquake in the margin: Friday, 7 August 1668 (17 August according to the Gregorian calendar). Today this earthquake is referred to in the records of the Institute of Engineering Seismology and Earthquake Engineering as one of the major earthquakes which occurred in the North Anatolian Fault.

Finally, it is noteworthy that Katharos wrote down his experience shortly after the event, in this case on the following day (8 August). This clearly shows that he carried along the manuscript on his travels and used it as a private diary – a use that the original scribe Manuel Malaxos could hardly have envisaged when creating the manuscript.

Moennig, Ulrich (1993): “Die Συνάθροισις ἀπὸ τὰ βιβλία τῶν παλαιῶν φιλοσόφων oder Φισιολογία νέα des Damaskenos Studitis”, in: Panagiotakis, N. M. (Hrsg.): Ἀρχὲς τῆς νεοελλινικῆς λογοτεχνίας. Πρακτικὰ τοῦ Δευτέρου Διεθνοῦς Συνεδρίου „Neograeca Medii Aevi", Venedig, Vol. 2, p. 560-564.
Moennig, Ulrich (2005): “Η συνύπαρξη κειμένων σε σύμμεικτους κώδικες, τα περικείμενα τους και η πρόσληψη: η περίπτωση της Συνάθροισης του Δαμασκηνού Στουδίτη“, in: Holton, D., Lendari, T., Moennig, U. und Vejleskov, P. (Hrsg.): Copyists, collectors, redactors and editors: manuscripts and editions of late Byzantine and early modern Greek literature. Herakleion, p. 251-273.
Pouvkova, Boryana (2008): Thaumaston: „Leserfreundlichkeit“ in einer neugriechischen Handschrift des späten 16. Jahrhunderts. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Hamburg: Universität Hamburg.

Material: Paper, 284 folios, measurements: 212×160 mm
Cover: Embossed leather
Place of origin: Constantinople, ca. 1574-1577

Unfortunately it is impossible for legal reasons to present images of the manuscript online or indicate the shelf mark of the manuscript or the place where it is currently located.

Text by Boryana Pouvkova
© for all images: CSMC