A bunch of dusty old manuscripts, densely covered with cryptic scribbles, hardly legible… a collection of random shreds of brownish paper, seemingly unconnected, arranged in a few identical glass vitrines… This may not sound particularly enticing to you at first. However, the well-read lover of literature will surely pause and prick up his ears when illustrious names such as Homer and Aristotle are dropped. After all, the exhibition on display in the Universitäts- und Staatsbibliothek adorns itself with the names of the ‘who’s who’ of ancient Greek literature and philosophy.
It might sound trivial, but the fact that there is no such thing as an ‘original version’ of any ancient literary text can surely serve to shed a completely different light on the parchment and papyrus vestiges on display in the Hamburger StaBi:
The absence of printing technology in pre-modern times meant that the only way to preserve or multiply a given text was to copy the whole thing by hand. Every ancient text, every piece of literature that has somehow managed to survive the centuries comparatively unscathed, is precisely that: a handwritten copy (of a copy of a copy… (you get the idea)) of a long-lost original. No Ilias, no Aristotelian Philosophies, no Bible even, without the conscientious work of – mostly medieval – scribes who devoted hours and hours of their lives, reproducing texts by candlelight, sitting in highly uncomfortable church pews, and probably shivering with cold due to the absence of modern heating. Writing material – either papyrus, or, later in the period, parchment – was extremely expensive and the replacement of the scroll by the codex (around the 4th / 5th century) – the predecessor of the modern book – offered a huge economic advantage, since a sheet could now be used bilaterally for writing.
But I’m about to lose myself in details so why not turn to a place where getting lost is virtually impossible: the exhibition room of the StaBi.
On entering the unobtrusive, dimly-lit display area, the attention of the attentive visitor is instantaneously caught by what is perhaps the most eye-catching artifact of the exhibition: a 14th century illuminated parchment codex containing the four gospels. Saint Mark is aptly portrayed while writing. Where age and erosion have corrupted the otherwise surprisingly brilliant colours of the illustration, the surface of a second, hidden manuscript text appears. Medieval paper recycling (aka palimpsest).
Another attraction of the collection is the set of papyrus fragments of Homer’s Ilias. Dating back to 200 BC, the 18 fragments of this Egyptian scroll are among the oldest textual Homer-witnesses owned by the Hamburger Staatsbibliothek.
Further highlights of the collection comprise a 13th century Odyssey-codex with marginal scholia, a copy of Hesiod’s Works and Days from the 17th century (including Latin paraphrases and glosses inserted in the margins of the manuscript), and a 14th century miscellany containing – among others – Sophocles’ King Oedipus.
A script of Aristotle’s famous Nicomachean Ethics illustrates the scribes’ susceptibility to copying errors: here, the 13th century copyist accidentally duplicated the word “téchne” – quite a common mistake and, incidentally, an important clue for modern textual critics trying to reconstruct the relationship between surviving copies.
A substantial number of other manuscripts are on display in the Hamburger StaBi. Some of them are gems that tell of times long past, when literacy was scarce and book-ownership considered a rare privilege reserved for the upper crust of society. Fascinating in themselves, they also reflect the interests of their previous owners without the help of which many of the texts at hand would never have outlived the ravages of time.
You certainly don’t have to be a palaeologist to experience a certain awe when looking at this impressive collection of ancient artifacts. So, for everyone interested in classical literature and religious text types this exhibition is well worth a look. And an excellent way of spending the 30 minutes of spare time between two lectures.
Where? Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky, Von-Melle-Park 3, 20146 Hamburg
When? Until 1 December 2013.
How much? Admission is free.
Alina was listening to Original Pirate Material while writing this review.