Preservation during Scarcity

Garrett MS 24, fols. 73v-74r. The right has visible undertext from when the parchment was washed for reuse and cut to fit the size of the manuscript Garrett MS 24 belongs to.

Alexander of Cyprus, Inventio Crucis
Georgian translation, 800s(?)
Manuscript, Egypt (Mount Sinai), 986
Palimpsest, Greek & Aramaic, 500s-900s

The pages of Garrett MS 24 record a multilingual, mobile, wealthy Christian community come upon hard times, but this story is not found in the text. The text gives us a Georgian translation of Inventio crucis, a story of the discovery of the cross first written by Alexander of Cyprus in the 500s. The scribe of this much later Georgian translation signed the manuscript with a colophon: “When this book was written, completed, and bound by the great sinner John of the Holy [Monastery of] Sinai, it was the year of creation in Georgian 6590, the Kronikon was 206, the year of the Greeks was 6519 and the Kronikon 94, the indiction 14.” This colophon, lost since the manuscript’s (precarious) re-entry into documented history in 1883, tells us we are looking at work completed by a Georgian scribe, John Zosimos, in 986 CE.

Garrett MS 24. The cover is from when the excised folios (99) were re-bound in Germany in the late 19th century.

The material inheritance of the manuscript — the physical evidence of its creation and care, the only evidence we have to speak of the manuscript’s long “life” up to modern day — tells us a different kind of story. The scriptorium responsible for Garrett MS 24 had a wealth of cultural tradition but a scarcity of new materials. The first two-thirds of the manuscript is “new” parchment created from animal hide contemporary to, and used for, the manuscript we have today. The rest of the manuscript is palimpsest: parchment taken from older scrolls or manuscripts, washed or scraped clean for re-use.

Notably, these “new” pages are not always whole but sometimes pieces of parchment stitched together to form a single page, upholding the idea that the scriptorium had a dearth of quality new parchment. We may be able to sketch a scene: together with the image of the script, the energy of the hand, we can picture the monk John Zosimos eager to transcribe his translation, the story of the cross, into his native Georgian, the irk of patchwork pages shadowing some greater strain on this monastic community — yet he perseveres, undaunted, perhaps with an added crease in his surely furrowed brow. This scene is (plainly) imagined; the kernel of it, though, is truth we can glean from observing this manuscript today.

Garrett MS 24, fols. 54v-55r. Notice how the left page is two pieces of parchment stitched together, and the hole in the center of the right, created when a small damage to the hide would have expanded in the parchment-making process.

The remains of eight very different manuscripts (one — a liturgical roll of Greek hymns — even apparently written previously by John Zosimos himself and subsequently erased) are present in Garrett MS 24, suggesting the scriptorium was active enough — and wealthy enough — to draw indiscriminately upon a bank of parchment cleaned for re-use. Think of the active community this necessitates: pages upon pages of work ranging from centuries old to new as living memory (and hand) sorted, washed, scraped, cut to size as necessary, in quantity enough for one manuscript to be shuffled into the pages of another, many times over.

The undertext of these palimpsest folios are also a record of the movement of texts. The earliest script (written as early as the 5th century) appears to be from Palestine or Syria, far from the home of Garrett MS 24 of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. These oldest folios have more to tell, though: they are a double palimpsest. The ancient manuscript was recycled for a second text in Greek script in the 7th or 8th century, long before this second text suffered a similar fate of being scrubbed for re-use in the 900s as the basis for Garrett MS 24.

Garrett MS 24, fols. 62v-63r. The left side, “new” parchment stitched from two pieces. The right side is whole, but visibly a different texture parchment with faint undertext visible.

This means that someone(s), during the 5th-8th centuries, cared enough about these two texts to preserve their pages from one location to another. Or is the story of Garrett MS 24 one of dislocation — scribes, ranging centuries, ranging from the Caucuses to Syria, settling in a well-established monastery in Sinai, witnessing its times of trouble through the ages, and through the recycling of their work? Despite many unknowns, there is much we can say.

The undertext of the eight palimpsests preserves Greek hymns and Syriac histories, each erased for the Georgian story of the cross. One of the folios reused from a liturgical scroll even retains undertext resembling later musical notation for Byzantine chant, an accident of preservation giving us one of the oldest sources of Byzantine chant notation.

The movements and literal intertextuality represented by the palimpsests of Garrett MS 24 signal an overlapping of margins — a confluence of languages, cultures, and geographies into a single Christian community situated under the care of at least a few significant Georgian speakers. However, this strong presence of the Georgian language may have been transient: Garrett MS 24 was well-valued, but little engaged. The pages are readable, with no major damage, and many folios have evident repairs done on minor damages, but there is little of the ‘wear-and-tear’ we would expect to see of a manuscript subject to daily use.

UV photo of Garrett MS 24, fol. 74r. The undertext of the palimpsest is much darker than by naked eye.

Garrett MS 24, fol. 74r (right) beside ultraviolet light (UV) photograph of the same folio (left) taken to better expose the undertext of the palimpsest.

Today, the manuscript remains well-preserved, though its scattered survival is a microcosm reflecting the history of antiquarianism: Garrett MS 24 is comprised of 99 of the (maybe) 140 original folios, with later folios forming sister codices, Syriac MSS 17, 19, and 21–25, held by the Library of Göttingen in Germany, and a stray early folio, which landed in the Mingana Collection of the University of Birmingham Library as Georgian MS 4.

The story of Garrett MS 24 is thus the preservation and erasure of, and through, the marginal. It is the material reflection of a powerful, yet transient pivot in the needs of a Christian community: careful preservation of a marginal Georgian Inventio crucis created from literal erasure in different manuscripts of dislocation and disuse, manuscripts of diverse languages, origins, and lives.

Manuscript Citation

Garrett MS 24. Princeton University Library. [catalog link]

Catalog Reference

Sofia Kotzabassi and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, Greek Manuscripts at Princeton: A Descriptive Catalog (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 126–30 and fig. 171.

Further Reading

Nina Garsoïan and Bernadette Martin-Hisard, “Unity and Diversity in Medieval Caucasia, 4th–11th Centuries,” in Stephen H. Rapp Jr. and Paul Crego, eds., Languages and Cultures of Eastern Christianity: Georgian (London: Routledge, 2012), 49–96.

Peter Jeffery, “A Window of the Formation of the Medieval Chant Repertories: The Greek Palimpsest Fragments in Princeton University MS Garrett 24,” in The Past in the Present: Papers Read at the IMS Intercongressional Symposium and the 10th Meeting of the Cantus Planus, Budapest and Visegrád (Budapest: Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, 2003), 2: 1–23.2

Svetlana Kujumdzieva, The Hymnographic Book of Tropologion: Sources, Liturgy and Chant Repertory (London: Routledge, 2017), 13–29.

Jørgen Raasted, “The Princeton Heirmologion Palimpsest,” Cahiers de l’Institut du Moyen-Age Grec et Latin 62 (1992): 219–32.

Don C. Skemer, “The Anatomy of a Palimsest (Garrett MS. 24),” Princeton University Library Chronicle 57, no. 2 (Winter 1996): 335–43.

Multispectral Imaging