A 12th Century Byzantine Psalter Now Available in Digital Form

The most recent addition to the collection of digitised manuscripts at Christ Church is a 12th century Byzantine Psalter (MS 42). This is a sizable codex on parchment, the exquisite work of one main scribe. Intriguingly, however, inserted in the volume are also a few pages on paper (ff. 49r-v, 86r-v and 132r-135-v) by a different hand. Apart from the Psalter (ff. 1r-253v), the manuscript includes the Odes (ff.  254r-274v) and the list of Easter calculations for the years 1184 to 1188 (f. 275v). This should not be surprising, as medieval manuscripts of the Psalms were not only used in the church during the performance of the Divine Office, but in private contexts as well, where subsidiary texts, such as the Odes (hymns taken from biblical texts other than the Psalms) were particularly welcome.

The Psalter was one of the commonest books in the Byzantine world. In addition to its religious functions, it was the text from which, together with the New Testament, most people learned to read. This may, in part, explain the large number of Psalters in the Christ Church collection of Greek manuscripts.

Without any doubt, the collection here is one of the most valuable – yet least known – collections of Greek codices in England. There are 86 manuscripts in the collection. 84 of these are Byzantine, most of them dating from 9th to 15th century; 2 are manuscripts dating from 18th century. The codices include a diverse assortment of biblical, patristic, hagiographical, liturgical texts, as well as chronographies and mathematical treatises. Several volumes in this collection are illuminated.

The Byzantine manuscripts arrived at Christ Church in 1737 with the bequest of the Archbishop of  Canterbury, William Wake (1657–1737). A great number of these were brought to England from Mount Athos in ca.1724, while some were gifts sent to the Archbishop by East European princes.

The collection as a whole has never been catalogued. Minimal descriptions in Latin were included in G. W. Kitchin’s Catalogus codicum mss. qui in Bibliotheca Aedis Christi apud Oxonienses adservatur, published in 1867. A number of volumes have been studied by Irmgart Hutter, who published descriptions in German in the Corpus der byzantinischen Miniaturenhandschriften, vols 4.1-4.2 (Stuttgart, 1993).

Given the importance of the Christ Church Byzantine collection, and also taking into consideration the large number of requests related to this corpus that the Library receives, specialist research and descriptions according to modern standards are urgently needed. It is going to take time and resources to make this unique corpus available to scholars. We plan to produce full codicological, textual and historical descriptions of the whole collection, to create TEI - compatible records for the online catalogue, and to complete high-resolution digital copies of each manuscript. It is early days, but to start it all up, and give you an idea of the range of the manuscripts in this collection, we have fully digitised three different Greek manuscripts.  You can see them in the relevant section of Christ Church Digital Library.

Dr Cristina Neagu
Keeper of Special Collections

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