Quire composition and reconstruction of the codex
The archaeology of palimpsests often permits the visualization of multiple aspects of the same manuscript folio. It can be interpreted in the context of the most recent script. However, it ought to be considered that the same folio had an equally legitimate function in its earlier “lives” as well. In normal palimpsests in which one script was erased to provide space for another one, there exists an alternative context. In double palimpsests (e.g. Vat. gr. 788. pt. B; Vat. gr. 984 + Vat. gr. 1882), however, the same folio can be interpreted in two different earlier contexts. It almost never happens that a completely rewritten manuscript can be reassembled from one or more later manuscripts. Nevertheless, it often happens that a significant portion can be reassembled from one or more manuscripts (e.g. Cicero’s Republic from Vat. lat. 5757 or the pre-Metaphrastic menologion from Vat. gr. 984 or one imperial copy of the Excerpta Constantiniana from Vat. gr. 73). When assembling folded parchment sheets, the producers of ancient books followed certain rules which help us in the exercise of reconstruction.
Vat. lat. 5757, p. 178 and p. 155
Gregory Law, named after Caspar René Gregory (1846–1917), the American New Testament Scholar has developed a method for the reconstruction of the original lost manuscripts from which the recycled parchment sheets derive. He observed a consistent rule present in medieval manuscripts: namely, the fact that the bookbinder and the scribe always place the hair side of the parchment directly adjacent to or facing the hair side of the next folio, and likewise, the flesh side with the flesh side of the successive folio. This practice arose from practical and aesthetic reasons. On the one hand, the folding of a large parchment sheet into smaller sections produces this succession if the folded parchment is then cut. On the other hand, the successive pages have similar visual characteristics and reactions to painting and illumination. The same principle was applied to recycled parchment sheets as well, making the reconstruction of the original manuscripts of recycled parchment sheets easier.
The fragmentary state of the palimpsests and the incomplete and their truncated nature generate many challenges for the scholar. Despite such challenges, a careful comparison with complete versions and the formal characteristics of the actual manuscripts help to formulate precise judgements on the extent of losses and the dimensions of the original.
Bookbinders were guided by quire-marks or catchwords in order to assemble the successive quires (or gatherings) of folded parchment sheets in the right order. Such quire-marks are often visible on palimpsests as well, which assist reconstruction. For example, the pre-Metaphrastic menologion in Vat. gr. 984 or Cicero’s Republic in Vat. lat. 5757 preserved many such quire-marks.
It is important to know the structure of the actual manuscript precisely, since this allows for an understanding of how the erased pages corresponded to each other when they were folded. Digital publications do not allow for a verification of the structure of the original codex. For this reason, each manuscript with palimpsests contains its collation structure in front of the images of its pages. This collation structure shows the correspondence of the recycled folios. The descriptions of the manuscripts often include the precise succession of text on the pages. The reader is kindly invited to rotate the images if desired, in order to perceive the manuscript as a three-dimensional object in which the recto side of a certain folio constitutes a visual unity with the verso side of another folio (that is, the other half of the recycled parchment sheet), which in turn comprises a folded sheet (bifolio) in the current manuscript. The editors of this project have allowed for the reader to visualize one page of each palimpsest in its correct rotation and the combination of the two corresponding sides. These annotated images can serve as a point of departure in deciphering the other palimpsest folios that are not presented in this way. Curious readers are kindly invited to continue the fascinating journey of deciphering using Mirador technology. The following sections will include some palimpsests which eagerly await identification.