On a Case by Case Basis: the Classics Case

Moving on from vernacular texts, the next case sets to explore the differing readership practices of classical works in Latin and Greek. It displays books from the early twelfth to the late fifteenth centuries and seeks to show different layers of knowledge in these languages after late Antiquity. As this array of material was especially aimed at catching the attention of our undergraduates, I tried to gather as many familiar authors as possible, though their acquisition was often unrelated to an appreciation of the literary quality of these works. For instance, Parker collected our copies of Homer and Euripides because he thought they belonged to Theodore of Tarsus, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the late seventh century, who had taught Latin and Greek to Anglo-Saxon students. In fact, Parker did not demonstrate a particular interest in classics as much as he did in history or theology, though he would have been taught Greek as an undergraduate. Some evidence of this training comes from the volume of Homer, which shows a Greek annotation on the title page. Written in Parker’s characteristic red, this note is also the first line of a sixth-century poem ascribed to Stephanus of Byzantium, in which each book of the Iliad is described in a single verse. [1]


Indeed, knowledge of Greek had been scarce in England up until Parker’s time, and our thirteenth-century bilingual psalter from Ramsey Abbey is an example of this lacuna. Whilst the psalms appears on two facing columns in both Latin and Greek, the latter is transliterated in Roman script, and the etymological annotations found on the flyleaves show that the scribe was copying them from another book, rather than spontaneously reflecting on the roots of the Greek language. Both these aspects strongly suggest that the scribe did not actually have any alphabetical or grammatical knowledge of Greek. An analogous problem can also be found in our Euripides, where Orestes is erroneously entitled Elektra, again suggesting the popular unfamiliarity with Greek texts. In contrast, the current opening of our copy of Terence shows some fifteenth-century marginal annotations, and the hand of a later twelfth-century scribe that has traced over faded portions of text, which offers an opportunity for comparison between readerships of Latin classical texts and their Greek counterparts in the same case.


Finally, I picked one of our fifteenth-century copies of Virgil to show how the format that was once used for biblical study – the appearance of the main text in a larger font, and a standard commentary surrounding it laid out on the page – was implemented in the scholarly study of other texts such as, in this case, the Aeneid. Despite lacking the glow of the illuminated initial of the Iliad, this opening also contains an etching portraying the Trojans as they carry the horse inside the city walls, a visually stunning addition to this section, and one of the many etchings in this volume.


[1] I would like to thank Professor Richard Hunter for his assistance in identifying the source of this annotation.


Carlotta Barranu

Library Assistant



Classics case


fifteenth century, England, possibly Canterbury (more likely Christ Church than St. Augustine’s)

Just above the beginning of the column of text, we see where Parker added his own signature (‘Matthaeus Cantuar:’), followed by a note in Greek in his characteristic red pencil. The book’s contents were recorded and made identifiable through the addition of the text ‘Homerus grece’ on the fore-edge of the book itself, offering a pleasing insight into the ways and methods in which books were stored on shelved during this period. The cartouche at the bottom reads, in Greek characters, ‘Theodoros’, which led Parker to believe the book once belonged to Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury (602-690), originally from the Greek-speaking Cilicia, now south of Turkey. For this reason, this book was thought to be 900 years older than it actually is.



fifteenth century, possibly Canterbury

Despite the new interest in Greek literature brought about during the Renaissance, it would have been unlikely for an English scribe to be familiar with Greek script. Yet this copy of three of Euripides’ plays seems to have come from Canterbury, which could bespeak of existing links with the East. Displayed here is Orestes, wrongly entitled ‘Elektra’, pointing perhaps at the failure of reading Greek or negligence on the part of the rubricator, i.e. the scribe who would have been in charge of inscribing titles in red in medieval manuscripts. On the other hand, the fact that the text is heavily annotated is indicative of an intended scholarly readership, which would have made sense among the circles of Canterbury. Like for the case of the volume of Homer, Parker believed this belonged to Theodore of Tarsus. This would have of course been impossible, as he died in 690 AD whilst the book dates to six centuries later.



early twelfth century, the continent (possibly Germany)

Copies of what we now call ‘classical’ literature were not widely transmitted during the Middle Ages due to their ties with paganism. There were some exceptions, however. Terence’s Comedies, for instance, were used as an aid to teach Latin grammar and style, which made them uninterruptedly popular from late antiquity to the Renaissance. This scenario is confirmed in the copy now housed at Corpus:  four scribes worked on this manuscript, and at least another three recognisable hands can be identified annotating the text. As the annotators can be dated between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries, it is clear that there was a consistent interest in reading Terence, and maintaining this copy functional and legible. Here you can see where a later twelfth-century scribe traced over portions of faded text.



1529, unknown publisher

Described by T.S. Eliot as ‘the classic of all Europe’, Virgil is among the most famous authors of Latinity. Since his death in 19 BC, Virgil’s literary works gained popularity as schoolbooks to learn Latin grammar and metre. After the consolidation of Christianism as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Aeneid in particular was reinterpreted as a proto-Christian text, with Aeneas taking resemblance of a Christ-like figure leading his people towards the foundation of Rome – like Christ did with the Church. It is indeed for this reason that Dante imagines to be guided by him through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. The Renaissance period then witnessed an important revival of the study of classical literature, prompting new scholarship on these texts. This edition is a good example of this context: it includes significant portions of commentary surrounding Virgil’s verses, indicating this would have been a copy intended for scholarly use. Here is displayed a section of Book 2, where Aeneas recollects the events leading up to the siege of Troy. In this beautiful etching, the Trojan horse hosting the hidden Greeks is brought into the city.



late thirteenth century, Ramsey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Before the Renaissance, knowledge of Greek in the West was sporadic and mainly associated with individual scholars or institutions, despite being one of the three sacred languages alongside Hebrew and Latin. In particular, England witnessed a period of hiatus in the study of Greek during the thirteenth century. This little volume, however, may seem an exception. Owned by Gregory of Huntingdon (fl.1300), prior of Ramsey Abbey, it is a bilingual psalter with facing pages in Latin, and Greek transliterated in Roman script. Instinctively, one would assume this indicates he had some knowledge of Greek, but clues in the book suggest the opposite. For instance, the nature of these notes is purely etymological – there is no evidence he understood Greek’s morphology or syntax. There are also clear signs in the notes themselves that demonstrate he was copying from another book rather than writing out of his own initiative. Therefore, he may not have had the skills to read the Greek portion of the psalter after all. What the volume depicts, however, is the beginning of a revived interest in Greek, as later expressed at the Council of Vienne where it was declared that Greek (and Hebrew) should be taught alongside Latin at university.

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