Secrets of the Page: Palimpsests

By Irene O’Daly

On Monday evening (11.02.13) a full house was present at the University Library for an entertaining and fascinating lecture by Will Noel, director of the Schoenberg Institute  and formerly curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.  Dr. Noel’s lecture, entitled ‘Eureka! The Archimedes Palimpsest’ was an account of the journey taken by a team of researchers, conservators and scientists to bring back to life a lost codex of works by Archimedes contained in an tenth-century volume that had been scraped and overwritten to accommodate a liturgical text in 1229.

Leiftinck Lecture 11/02/13 © Julie Somers

Lieftinck Lecture 11/02/13 © Julie Somers

From the point of view of manuscript preservation, palimpsests are a unique case.  An early case of recycling, a palimpsest is made when the original text is scraped from the parchment and a new text is written in its place.  In this image, dating from the fourteenth century, the process of preparing a manuscript to receive new text can be seen.

Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, ms. 1456 (= Sorbelli 963), f. 4r © 2002 Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna

Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, ms. 1456 (= Sorbelli 963), f. 4r ©  Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna

The heyday of palimpsest production was the seventh to eighth century when (frequently pagan) texts were frequently scraped off parchment to be overwritten with liturgical texts required in the great monastic centres such as Luxeuil, Bobbio and Fleury.  In short, the parchment was seen as more valuable than the texts it contained. However, the original text can sometimes be visible as a ghostly underlayer, depending on the efficacy of the original preparation of the parchment and partly attributable to the acidic nature of some inks which may leave an indelible impression in parchment. In this example, a twelfth-century copy of Cicero’s De Inventione, the text of the coloured initials from the original late Carolingian palimpsest text can be clearly seen.

© British Library MS Harley 2510, f. 3r

© British Library MS Harley 2510, f. 3r

So while this may seem to be a case of wanton destruction of manuscript treasures, ironically palimpsests have, on occasion, served as a means of saving texts. Two famous examples of such serendipity in the Latin classical tradition are worth mentioning.  In 1819, Angelo Mai, prefect of the Vatican Library, unearthed a manuscript (Vat. Lat. 5757) containing Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms, written in Bobbio in the seventh century.  However, this text had been overwritten on a copy of Cicero’s De Re Publica dating from the late fourth or early fifth century, which was, in fact the only surviving copy of major parts of the text.  In 1853, at the monastery of St Paul in Carinthia, a copy of books 11-15 of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History was uncovered under a text of the commentary of Jerome on Ecclesiastes, written c. 700 (probably at Luxeuil or an associated house). The Pliny, referred to as the Codex Moneus, is one of the best witnesses to this important text.

Vat. Lat. 5757, f. 122. (Plate 39, E. Chatelain, Paléographie des classiques latins 1884-1900)

Vat. Lat. 5757, f. 122. (Plate 39, E. Chatelain, Paléographie des classiques latins 1884-1900)

However, these nineteenth-century milestones of discovery were sometimes made at great cost to the manuscript.  At the time, the principal method for uncovering the palimpsest text was through the use of chemical reagents, such as hydrochloric acid and potassium cyanide.  The application of this solution could make the under-text visible, but frequently resulted in long-term stain damage to the manuscript, rendering it illegible.  The most widespread method of looking at erased or underwritten texts nowadays is the use of UV lamps, which literally help the researcher to consider the manuscript ‘in a new light’.

However, as Will Noel pointed out, in cases like the Archimedes palimpsest, where the manuscript has suffered substantial elemental and circumstantial damage, UV light may not suffice.  In fact, the first researcher to recognise the significance of the text, J.L. Heiberg working in 1906, used a magnifying glass to interpret the palimpsest! The team at the Walters Art Museum used a new range of methods to recover the writings of the Archimedes palimpsest, including multi-spectral imagery and even studied leaves of the manuscript using highly focused x-rays produced by a synchotron.  Their innovative processes, documented on their website (where all the data is available under a Creative Commons license) could potentially serve as a forerunner for future manuscript studies and, indeed, pushes the boundaries of interdisciplinary studies in the humanities and sciences.

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