09.09.04, Declercq, ed., Early medieval palimpsests

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John Contreni

The Medieval Review 09.09.04

Declercq, Georges (ed.). Early Medieval Palimsests. Bibliologia: Elementa ad librorum studia pertinentia, vol. 26. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. 155. ISBN: 978-2-503-52480-1.

Reviewed by:
John Contreni
Purdue University

If codicology is the archeology of the book, palimpsests are often regarded as codicology's hidden treasures. Palimpsests offer two (and sometimes three) ancient texts in one manuscript, the upper text, visible to all, and a lower text, often, as Virginia Brown observed in her census of Beneventan palimpsests, "vigorously erased" and virtually hidden from view. Brown's observation occurs in her contribution ("Palimpsested Texts in Beneventan Script: A Handlist with Some Identifications," 99-144) to this useful collection of studies. Originating in a one-day conference held in 2002, the collection offers an update of work on palimpsests. Georges Declercq's very useful introductory essay, "Codices Rescripti in the Early Medieval West," focuses especially on the 150 surviving palimpsested texts produced in the Latin West. Declercq's survey allows some interesting generalizations. Among the texts written over from this period, 27.5% represent classical authors, while the Bible (17.5%), patristic (12.5%), liturgical (9.3%), and Roman law texts (8%) follow behind. Combining the Christian texts yields a percentage (39.3%) greater than that of the classical texts. Declercq's survey of the Bobbio palimpsests challenges the assumption that poverty stimulated early medieval re-use of parchment. At Bobbio, the most active period of erasure and recopying coincides with a stable and secure period in the history of the community.

Natalie Tchernetska's short four-page piece, "Do It Yourself: Digital Image Enhancement Applied to Greek Palimpsests," instructs readers on techniques available to manipulate digital images to improve legibility using a variety of "off-the-shelf hardware and software" (25). What can be lamented of this essay can also be said of the volume as a whole: there are no illustrations! David Ganz, in "Harley 3941: From Jerome to Isidore," changes the primary locus of interest in palimpsested manuscripts, the primary, lower text, to concentrate on the upper text, in this case, Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae , partially written in Brittany at the end of the ninth century on 14 leaves from an uncial manuscript of Jerome's translation of Eusebius's Chronicle . It also appears that other parts of the Isidorian text were copied over earlier documentary texts, perhaps charters.

Yitzhak Hen concentrated on some 32 Latin "Liturgical Palimpsests from the Early Middle Ages" that survive in 20 manuscripts rewritten before 1000 C.E. Most of the 32 primary texts were copied before the ninth century and would seem to testify to Carolingian efforts to disseminate uniform liturgical practice by copying over older, "obsolescent" liturgical documents. But Hen is careful to point out that even the older liturgies continued to be copied into the ninth century, thereby maintaining a lively diversity of liturgical expression. Among the 20 manuscripts included in Hen's fascinating chart of palimpsested codices (49-54) is Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6333, an early ninth-century copy of Jerome's De viris illustribus written over leaves from sacramentaries and a variety of other texts, including synodal decrees, formulae, and two Carolingian letters. Two of the volume's essays focus on this one palimpsest. Georges Declercq, "The Scriptorium of Benediktbeuren and the Palimpsest Codex Clm 6333," offers a fascinating analysis of the 13 primary texts that yielded their parchment to the scribes at Benediktbeuren, focusing especially on the origins of the primary texts and the challenges the scriptorium master faced in building a new book out of the remnants of 13 older books. Mark Mersiowsky concentrated his attention on the two letters in the Munich manuscript, one from Charlemagne to Pope Hadrian, the other from an unknown bishop to Charlemagne. His "Preserved by Destruction: Carolingian Original Letters and Clm 6333" centers especially on the status of the palimpsests as originals. After an informative overview of the criteria for determining the originality of Carolingian letters, Mersiowsky concluded that the Clm 6333 letters are indeed originals, but were never sent after their composition and came to Benediktbeuren from the "courtly waste paper basket or shall we say: the waste vellum basket?" (98).

Virginia Brown's study of palimpsested texts in Beneventan script demonstrates how long-lived palimpsesting was, since most of her evidence dates from after the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. In the Beneventan experience, it was antiphonaries and hagiographical texts that yielded their parchment for new uses. Rosamond McKitterick wraps up the collection with "Palimpsests: Concluding Remarks" and astutely notes that the essays in the volume underscore the historical significance of the "circumstances of palimpsesting" (151) which surely are as interesting and as important as the treasures hidden by the process of palimpsesting.

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John Contreni

Purdue University