Greek Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by T. Janz]


The thirteenth century was not kind to the Byzantine Empire. It began with the Fourth Crusade, whose purpose was to recapture Jerusalem but which instead culminated in the sack of Constantinople in 1204, followed by the installation of a Latin Empire there, sending the Byzantine court into exile in Nicaea (modern İznik) until it was able to recapture its capital city in 1261. After this, the Byzantine Empire was able to stage a relatively modest "Palaeologan Renaissance" under Michael VIII Palaeologus and his successors, but never fully recovered its former glory.

You can admire dated manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the beautifully reproduced, high-quality plates with detailed (though now somewhat dated) descriptions, arranged in chronological order in three works by Alexander Turyn, which respectively include manuscripts now kept in the Vatican Library, in other Italian libraries, and in Great Britain. Unfortunately, unlike the Lake collections, these are not yet available digitally.

There are relatively few manuscripts which can be securely dated to the Nicaean period; naturally, they generally reflect the relatively modest context in which they were produced: they tend to be small, to maximize the use of the available space (leaving small marginal and interlinear spaces), and are increasingly written on paper rather than parchment. Even a large book like the famous Suda Vat. gr. 1296 (from which a sample is shown below), written by a scribe named Matthew in 1205 CE (the year after the sack of Constantinople), is made of paper (though it does not display the space-saving techniques we have just mentioned). (By the way, many scholars believe that this manuscript was written in southern Italy, mostly because of the formula ὁ γράφων […] παραγράφει [this is an expression of humility on the part of the scribe, requesting indulgence for the fact that "the writer (sometimes) mis-writes"], which you can make out in the subscription on f. 551r and which, as Turyn noted [in his Vatican Library plate collection, number 2, pp. 21-22], is common in the colophons of Italo-Greek manuscripts; however, the script does not display any specifically Italo-Greek features.) The script shows the same sort of mixture of formal elements and cursive ones which we saw in the twelfth century, but also a new phenomenon, which will become more pronounced as we move on to Palaeologan times, namely the appearance of "modern" letter-shapes for letters like kappa (e.g. the first letters in the first and sixth lines in the sample below) and, especially, nu (shaped like a Latin "v" and now easily confused with upsilon: see e.g. the word σημαίνου|σαν in ll. 1-2 of the sample).

Detail from Vat. gr. 1296, f. 306r

While monastic scriptoria of Palaeologan times continued to produce books of a certain elegance (mostly Biblical or liturgical ones), often in an archaizing style recalling the Perlschrift, the majority of the books in this period were evidently not produced by professional calligraphers but rather by scholars or by bureaucrats copying books as a secondary activity. Perhaps as a result of this last factor, scripts of the late thirteenth century (and into the fourteenth) tend to be characterized, even more than the cursive hands we have already seen, by a quirk of documentary and chancery scripts, namely the apparently arbitrary enlargement of specific letters — or, to put it another way, by moderate to extreme modular contrast.

A. The Fettaugenmode

The most notable development of this time is the appearance of the so-called Fettaugenmode. This coinage (first proposed in 1961 as Fettaugenstil, in Geschichte der Textüberlieferung…, p. 101) is another notable contribution by Herbert Hunger to paleographical terminology; it could be translated as "grease-globule fashion", referring to the overall visual effect of a page of writing in which many enlarged circular letters (as well as the circular abbreviation for -ος), within a script of generally very small module, evoke (if you will) the appearance of the surface of a bowl of greasy soup. With a small effort of imagination, you can probably see this in the image below, taken from Vat. gr. 690, which was written in 1279 CE by a scribe named Nikolaos Mesarites (RGK 3,506).

Fettaugen Vat gr 690 f 17r.jpg
Detail from Vat. gr. 690, f. 17r

On second thought, as he explained in a more detailed article (in BF 4 [1972], pp. 105-113), Hunger considered it preferable to call this phenomenon a "fashion" (Mode) rather than a "style", because there is no specific set of other characteristics accompanying it which could be collectively defined as a "style". Scripts with prominent circular letters continue to be produced in the first two decades of the fourteenth century, but this fashion in its most extreme form is considered typical of the early Palaeologan period, i.e. the last decades of the thirteenth century.

For practice reading and transcribing Fettaugenmode script, please see Vat. gr. 690.

B. The Beta-Gamma Style

The same tendency towards extreme modular contrast is behind the emergence of the script which N. Wilson (in one of his contributions to the 1974 Paris conference, pp. 263-7) proposed to call "Beta-Gamma Style", because here the letters which are enlarged are beta and gamma. This script has a better claim to be considered a "style" in that (at least in "its fully developed form", to quote Wilson, p. 264), it has other features which define it, besides the generally small module and the extravagant enlargements of a vaguely heart-shaped beta and of a rounded, majuscule gamma. Among these, Wilson singled out (1) the double bend in the downstroke of the rho, and (2) the "angular but dislocated form of the ace of spades ligature for epsilon-rho". All of these features may be seen in the sample below from Vat. gr. 1332 (this manuscript is not explicitly dated; the epsilon-rho ligature occurs in the rather faded interlinear glosses, e.g. over the third line in the gloss τῆς περὶ τὴν θυσίαν γενομένης).

Apart from the specific features of the "Beta-Gamma Style" which can be observed here, it is worth noting some more general tendencies which we will find in other scripts of this period as well. Regarding letter-shapes, besides the "modern" shapes of kappa and nu which we have already seen, we also have here a "modern" epsilon, shaped like a backwards number 3. As in many scripts from this period onwards, this epsilon tends to "recline" (i.e. it is rotated counterclockwise). Note also that the "cursivity" of this script extends not only to the letters but also to the abbreviations, accents and breathings, as in the combined smooth breathing + acute on ἔπειτα (first line of the sample); the ligature of sigma with a circumflex in βοῆς (third line); that of upsilon with an acute in λύουσα (fourth line); or that of the omikron-upsilon abbreviation with a circumflex in Ἰσμηνοῦ (last line).

Detail from Vat. gr. 1332, f. 94r (Aeschylus, Seven agaisnt Thebes 267-273)

The style is indeed quite recognizable, and it is found in dated manuscripts running at least from 1253 CE (Vat. gr. 10: plate 14 in Turyn's Vatican collection) to 1296 CE (at least one of the hands in Vat. gr. 191: plate 61 in Turyn's Vatican collection), in other words covering the entire second half of the thirteenth century; Wilson opined that it is not found after 1300.

Whether the "Beta-Gamma Style" should be considered a "style" in its own right or merely "an expression of the Fettaugenmode itself" (thus Crisci & Degni in their already mentioned book, p. 188) is an open (and not terribly important) question. There are at any rate a number of manuscripts which display elements of both; an example is Vat. gr. 1899, of which a sample is seen below and which is one of the only Byzantine manuscripts which was certainly copied by a woman. This copy of Aelius Aristeides was written by Theodora Rhaoulaena (ca. 1240 — 1300), a niece of the founder of the Palaeologan dynasty, Emperor Michael VIII, sometime between her marriage to John Raoul Petraliphas in 1261 and the death of Michael VIII in 1282 (this dating was pieced together by Turyn [in his Vatican Library collection, number 36, p. 64] from what she writes of herself inside the decorations near the top of f. 9r). Theodora's hand includes extravagant beta's and gamma's (as well as omega's), but also (moderately) enlarged circular letters, as in the Fettaugenmode. In addition, the "modern" letter-shapes we have already noted are again present; in particular, the "reclining epsilon (e.g. in ἐγὼ in the first line or ἐπαινεῖν in the last) is now bent so far back that it could easily be taken for an omega.

Detail from Vat. gr. 1899, f. 148r

For practice reading and transcribing the Beta-Gamma Style, please see Vat. gr. 1899.

C. Palaeologan Mimetic Hands

We mentioned earlier that the Perlschrift was never really replaced as a standard script, and that, despite the new fashions and styles of the Palaeologan period, some scribes (especially in monastic settings) continued, well into the thirteenth century, to produce elegant books in tidy, very formal bookhands of the Perlschrift variety. Such hands are often referred to as "mimetic", since they often seem to betray a conscious effort to imitate the Perlschrift of earlier periods; and, as noted by H. Hunger (Schreiben und Lesen..., pp. 102-3), the effort which such imitation visibly requires of the scribe is probably the best analogy in the field of minuscule scripts to the trajectory (and specifically to the latter, "declining" portion of the trajectory) of a "canon" (if the Perlschrift is to be considered such) of the sort which G. Cavallo was able to theorize quite convincingly in the field of majuscule Greek scripts. At any rate, when the imitation is successful, these hands can be difficult to date, seeming older than they really are. For example, the overall impression given by the sample below is not very different from the one which would be produced by an eleventh-century Perlschrift; however, this manuscript (Ott. gr. 426) is explicitly dated to 1299/1300 (the name of the scribe is Simon, RGK 3,575).

Detail from Ott. gr. 426, f. 27v

If you go beyond the general impression and look at the individual letters, you will indeed soon find features (apart from the general stiffness which itself betrays the imitation) which would be very surprising in a real eleventh-century Perlschrift manuscript, including the "backwards-three" epsilon (which however is not "reclining"); the omikron-upsilon abbreviation written in line as a ligature; the oversized abbreviation for -ος (which recalls the Fettaugenmode); and the oddly-shaped beta (which, though not especially large, nonetheless recalls the Beta-Gamma Style by its shape).

For practice reading and transcribing Palaeologan mimetic script, please see Ott. gr. 426.