The Medieval Review 11.02.10

Sofia Kotzabassi, Nancy Patterson Sevcenko, and Don C. Skemer. Greek Manuscripts at Princeton, Sixth to Nineteenth Century: A Descriptive Catalogue. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. 544. $195 ISBN 978-0-691-14387-3. .

Reviewed by:

Glenn Peers
University of Texas at Austin

This extraordinarily handsome volume presents in detail 63 Greek manuscripts and fragments to be found at Princeton University (including the University Library, the Scheide collection and the University Art Museum) and one volume at the Theological Seminary. It is a substantial volume, for its appealing presentation, its heft and its rigorous presentation. By current standards, this is a luxury production, and it shows just cause for Princeton's longstanding reputation in Hellenic studies and its strengths in publishing its endeavors in this field. The many color illustrations are excellent quality, as are the scholarly exposition and copyediting.

Indeed, the pleasures of reading such a catalogue are surprisingly frequent. Many of the manuscripts are known from earlier presentations in exhibition or other publications, but many are not. They all have compelling features that are related by the scholars here with real clarity and striking command of their fields. If the stories these manuscripts and fragments tell are somewhat bloodless, that is the nature of this format. Only one manuscript entry is prefaced by "general remarks," and so one is led in other cases directly through the individual, standard elements comprising these entries (each described on pp. xxi-xxii). However, some summary presentation for the entries would have aided browsers. And the scholarly rigor of the entries will also block entry for many. One would like such a volume to be accessible to undergraduates and others without Greek, but many aspects of the stories these objects can tell will be closed because so much Greek remains untranslated. For example, Garret MS. 7 (late twelfth/thirteenth centuries with inserted thirteenth-century miniatures) has been studied, and readers can track down facets of its historical significance through the bibliographic notices at the end of the entry. But the fourteenth-century note on 240r is untranslated, and only hints of its meaning, through mention of previous misunderstanding, are given. Likewise, on the same page (46), mention is made of apotropaic acronyms, but these are not explained. Of course, this volume is a generous testimony to scholarship amongst the Hellenists in this project and at Princeton, but some concessions might have been made to Greekless undergraduates, for example, who might otherwise be rebuffed. The inscriptions and other notations are witnesses to the human, personal lives of these books and fragments, and all facets of those lives should be made accessible to anyone who can read the language in which this book is written.

This withholding is striking because the descriptions of the contents, illustrations and visual elements in the manuscripts are so ample. Many of the illustrations are included in the fine plates at the back of the volume, but not all; even this publishing project had its limits. All images are liberally verbalized, in any case. This decision has meaning. The descriptions clearly attempt to give the illustrations a voice, which the illustrations are themselves incapable of doing. They emphasize content, identity of figure and action, including passages on clothing and furniture. They privilege primary (to our minds) aspects of content, so an illustration of St. Mark on 65v in Garret 7, for example, is described in a clear, meticulous manner but the "crude sketches of a hunting dog" on the recto (65r) receive a sentence only and no figure. The exercise of a descriptive catalogue cannot involve exhausting every possible aspect of every manuscript or fragment. But it is not natural or neutral in what it chooses to emphasize or pass over. So, what is visual is generously articulated, and what is opaque to many--Greek--now is left as such.

For a catalogue, this book evokes many fascinating pasts, and it does so in measured, careful ways that still does not hide the still-vivid people who intersected with these objects and who directed them to this small college town in New Jersey. Robert Garrett is a quiet hero here in the catalogue, the main collector from whom Princeton University's Hellenic ambitions benefitted. A shadowy figure behind his collecting appears here to be Thomas Whittemore, whose role as facilitator for Garrett is tied to eight of the manuscripts from his collection. The Russian skete of St. Andrew on Mount Athos was the source Whittemore drew on for his trade in manuscripts; the trade may have been perfectly benign (Whittemore was active with Russian refugee causes), but its nature is not addressed here. The forgery of a parchment folio of the Battle of Lepanto (235-6) brings to the stage Demetrios Pelekasis, who might have passed off his work as that of the sixteenth-century painter George Klontzas; R.M. Dawkins, Arthur Evans and Joseph Demotte also appear in this entry. The purpose of the forgery, if that is what it really is, is still a mystery, and the entry is like a skeleton of a novel. The evocativeness of the geographical range of these manuscripts is also striking; these books and fragments apparently visited many parts of Greece, the Balkans and the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before arriving in Princeton.

The medieval and post-medieval identities of these objects are, of course, going to interest readers of The Medieval Review. Some of these objects have been scarcely studied and published. Even those that had been published will find new life; Garrett 16, a heavily illustrated version of the Heavenly Ladder, will find new attraction to scholars and students in the entry and its beautiful plates. Further into the catalogue are newer additions, like Princeton Greek 12, a post-medieval Proskynetarion of the Holy Land, which is unpublished and deserves study (the spelling mistakes noted are an intriguing aspect, for example); and Princeton Greek 13, two drawings from model books (perhaps) from the late seventeenth/early eighteenth centuries, only purchased in 2002. These are two examples, but more avenues into these objects' past lives open from these catalogue entries. Getting both feet on the avenue means proficiency in Greek, but many readers will be drawn more deeply into the challenges and pleasures of Hellenism by these beautifully laid approaches to them.