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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

08/2014 manuscript  of the month

Of Travels and Travails in Blank Spaces:

The Fate of Ioan of Kratovo’s Four Gospels

This well-preserved Church Slavonic version of the Four Gospels (HACI 34) copied in 1562 has always been a very valuable object. Not only is it rich in art produced by the famous Orthodox calligrapher and illuminator Ioan of Kratovo (fl. 1526–1583), but the manuscript is thickly clad in precious metals; the binding alone, which is silver and gold-plated, weighs 14 kilogrammes. We can partially reconstruct the story of this manuscript from the various notes that are to be found in its margins. Some of these marginal accounts are written in rough handwriting; it is surprising that such a beautiful book, which once commanded sacral powers, is littered with childish scrawls. There is a particularly interesting contrast where a luxuriously illuminated page is bordered by an inscription that was added by someone called Petre, who apparently belonged to a family of boza-sellers (boza was a fermented beverage popular in the Balkans during the Ottoman period). How did the rude handwriting of a boza-seller find its place in this ceremonial book, whose handling was the privilege of the clergy?

Fig. 1: Ioan of Kratovo’s illumination of
St Matthew with the boza-seller’s handwriting in
the lower margin.(HACI 34, fol. 10a) > Enlarge

The 1562 Four Gospels is a 338-folio manuscript written in the Cyrillic alphabet using the Resava orthography of the Serbian recension of Church Slavonic. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this orthography was most commonly used in the manuscripts produced in Kratovo and the surrounding area (today located in the Republic of Macedonia). The material of which the 1562 Four Gospels is made is paper and the work is 28.8 x 18.7 cm in size. The main feature of the manuscript is that it is heavily illuminated. The scribe consistently wrote twenty lines per page and illuminated the initial letters on each one. Each Gospel of the Four Evangelists – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – is prefaced by a portrait of the respective saint, which occupies the upper half of the page (see Fig. 1).

This book belonged to a larger Church Slavonic scribal tradition where one often encounters different kinds of notes and records left behind in the margins and blank pages of manuscripts. Some of these inscriptions were written by the scribe who produced the work, but there are also many other notes written by different hands, sometimes several centuries after the manuscript was copied. These writings address a wide variety of subjects ranging from information regarding the production of the book to calamitous events such as outbreaks of plague, famine, wars, earthquakes and extreme weather conditions. This version of the Four Gospels is one replete with marginal notes. From these brief records we can learn quite a bit about the manuscript’s turbulent history. The oldest inscription in the manuscript is the colophon left by the illuminator and scribe, Ioan (see Fig. 2). He tells us that the manuscript was commissioned by Precentor Matej, the cleric who directed the choral services of the famous Holy Sophia Church in Serdica (present-day Sofia, Bulgaria). Ioan also writes that the work was completed in September 1562 in the city of Kratovo, an important mining centre in the Ottoman Empire. Although the book was commissioned for liturgies in the Holy Sophia Church, it did not remain there.

Fig. 2: A scribal colophon at the end of the book
detailing the production of the manuscript.
(HACI 34, fol. 336)    > Enlarge

In fact, by 1610, a priest called Konstantin had already given the manuscript “to the Jews” [pawnbrokers and moneylenders] as collateral for a debt. An account of this transaction was not written at the time of the debt, but rather upon its repayment twelve years later. In 1622, a couple of ktitors – wealthy Orthodox citizens who provided funds for monasteries and religious works of art – recovered the manuscript. As the scribal note tells us, “the ktitor Adam and his brother Petko” gave 2,000 aspers (Ottoman silver coins) and donated the manuscript to Saint Nikola’s Church in Sofia. To prevent this from happening again, an anathema (a curse pronounced by an ecclesiastical authority) was issued to protect the book from being pawned or stolen in future. Two men, Nikola Brankov and Cone Manol, were even designated as its protectors, but the book continued to change hands nonetheless (see Fig. 3).

The precise date of its next departure is not known, but a note states that in 1646 the ktitors “Petre, seller of boza” and “Ioan Glav’sho” paid 2,500 aspers for its return to Saint Nikola’s Church. Petre the boza-seller made the most of his donation by leaving behind another long inscription spanning many pages in the lower margin of folios 2b to 13b. Writing in an unrefined scrawl that includes a good deal of crossed-out text and amendments, Petre confirms the donation and hopes it will bode well for him and his parents (see Fig. 4). A book as valuable as the Four Gospels was practically predestined to change hands many times, especially in the centuries that witnessed the declining power of the Orthodox Slavic clergy under Ottoman rule. It is difficult to compare the seventeenth-century monetary value of the Four Gospels to a contemporary standard. However, from a complaint about inflation made in a marginal note dated 1626, which was found in another manuscript, we know that a tovar (approximately 130 kilogrammes) of wheat cost 60 aspers at the time. Bearing this in mind, we can see that the Four Gospels was worth about 26 tovars of wheat – enough to feed a small city.

Fig. 3: A note stating that two ktitors donated 2,000
aspers in order to recover the book from “the Jews” in 1622.
(HACI 34, fol. 337) > Enlarge

Notes relating to the binding of the book can also be found in it. The manuscript was rebound several times. Although there is no information regarding the original binding, we find that a new one was made in the year 1677. This event is commemorated in an illuminated inscription, in which a certain ktitor Grujo is mentioned (see Fig. 5). So the manuscript did not always possess the ornate façade which we see today. The heavily ornamented silver and gold-plated binding which has survived was crafted in the early nineteenth century. There is a note on the first blank folio recording the rebinding of the manuscript in 1809 by a goldsmith named Hristo (see Fig. 6), who also engraved a long inscription which frames the metallic surface of the binding (see Fig. 7). Besides adding his own name, he honours the archbishop Teofan, two priests of the church where the manuscript was kept and the ktitors who had paid for the new binding. The journey of this valuable book continued after 1809, although that story is not to be found in its margins. The inscriptions that remain tell us a rich tale starting with the manuscript’s production, its value over the centuries, its abandonment due to debt, and the efforts of wealthy religious people to bring it back to that venerated place to which it belonged: the centre of the altar. And it is in these travels and travails that we uncover the story behind the proud yet unrefined scrawl of a boza-seller who sought to leave his trace on this holy and ceremonial object.

Fig. 4: The careless scrawl of Petre the
boza-seller can be seen in the lower
margin.(HACI 34, fol. 12b) > Enlarge

Fig. 5: Two inscriptions written by
different hands. The upper note records
the donation by Petre the boza-seller.
The lower illuminated inscription
reveals the circumstances of the re-
binding of the manuscript in 1677.
(HACI 34, fol. 2b)
> Enlarge

Fig. 6: An account of the rebinding in
1809. (HACI 34, fol. 1a) > Enlarge

Fig. 7: The silver and gold-plated binding
from 1809 (back). The bookbinder’s
inscription is worked into the design by
being inscribed within the frame that
borders the engraving. > Enlarge


CLEMINSON, Ralph (2011): “Margin as Text”, In: Raia Kuncheva (ed.): Marginalnoto v/na literaturata, Sofia: Boian Penchev, 626-641.

GEORGIEVSKI, Mihajlo ГЕОРГИЕВСКИ, Михајло (1997): “Knizhevno-iluminatorskata shkola na pop Jovan od Kratovo od XVI vek”. In: Mihajlo Georgievski (ed.): Prilozi od starata makedonska knizhevnost i kultura. Skopje: Menora, 69-77.

PANAIOTOV, Veselin ПАНАИОТОВ, Веселин (1999): Marginalii Маргиналии. Shumen: Glauks Глаукс.

POP-ATANASOV, Gjorgi ПОП-АТАНАСОВ, Ѓорги (2004): “Joan Kratovski Јоан Кратовски”. In: Gjorgi Pop-Atanasov, Ilija Velev, Maja Jakimovska-Toshikj (eds.): Tvorci na makedonskata literatura (IX-XVIII vek) Творци на македонската литература (IX-XVII век) . Skopje: Institut za makedonska literatura Институт за македонска литература, 283-286.

STANKOVA, Liliana / NENKOVSKA Lora (2009): “The manuscript heritage of Ioan Kratovski”. In: European Journal of Science and Theology, Vol. 5, No. 1, 13-24.

VELEV, Ilija ВЕЛЕВ, Илија (2012): “Chetvoroevangelieto na pop Joan Kratovski od 1562 godina”. In: Ilija Velev: Chetvoroevangelieto na pop Joan Kratovski od 1562 godina: Elektronsko izdanie Четвороевангелието на поп Јоан Кратовски од 1562 година: Електронско издание. Skopje: Institut za makedonska literatura, 9-66.

VELEV, Ilija ВЕЛЕВ, Илија (2012): Chetvoroevangelieto na pop Joan Kratovski od 1562 godina: Elektronsko izdanie Четвороевангелието на поп Јоан Кратовски од 1562 година: Eлектронско издание. Skopje: Institut za makedonska literatura Институт за македонска литература.


Historical and Archival Church Institute in Sofia (HACI)
Shelf mark: HACI Nr. 34
Material: Paper (338 folios/20 lines per page; cover: silver and gold-plated binding from 1809)
Dimensions: 28.8 x 18.7 cm
Place of origin: The city of Kratovo (Macedonia), 1562

Text by Kristina Nikolovska
© for all images: Velev, 2012