The oldest Phillipps manuscript? (Tales of the Phillipps manuscripts #2)

ANU Classics Museum 75.01 (formerly part of Phillipps MS 16402)

Was Phillipps 16402 the oldest manuscript that Sir Thomas Phillipps ever acquired? His own catalogue describes it as “Coptic Papyri. 19 leaves pasted in fragments between glasses. Supposed to be of saec. iv”. He bought it in 1862, as part of the Sotheby’s sale of the “reserved and most valuable portion” of the collection of the notorious Guglielmo Libri. Sotheby’s dated it to the fourth century. The Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts repeats this information, but gives no other clue as to the previous and later history of these fragments. If the description is accurate, this was the oldest Phillipps manuscript, by about three centuries.

Thanks to a century of research by Coptic scholars like W.E. Crum, Jacques Van Vliet, Florence Calamet, Renate Dekker and others, we now know a lot more about these fragments and about what happened to them after they left the Phillipps Collection. They are part of the archive of St. Pesynthios, Bishop of Koptos/Keft (569–632), and were probably found at a monastic site in Western Thebes in Upper Egypt. They include letters and documents (among them a list of clothes and information about the wages paid to two carpenters), as well as literary and liturgical texts. The papyri in the Phillipps Collection are closely connected to a larger set of similar materials in the Musée du Louvre.

The nineteen Phillipps papyrus fragments were included in the sale of the residue of his collection to the Robinson Brothers in 1946. By the early 1970s, these documents were being offered for sale by the London antiquities dealer (and founder of The Folio Society) Charles Ede. Their subsequent dispersal around the world can only be partly traced. Two are now in the art collection of the Antwerp-based shipping and logistics company Katoen Natie (685/01-02). One is in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley (P. Berk. 01). Another is owned by the Classics Museum of the Australian National University in Canberra (75.01), where its connection with Phillipps was undocumented until fairly recently.

From 7th-century Egypt across Europe to 19th-century England, and then on to the United States and Australia in the 20th century: these papyri have come a long way through space and time! Still among the oldest manuscripts to have passed through the hands of Sir Thomas Phillipps, they now serve as fragmentary witnesses to the daily life of the Coptic Church in Byzantine Egypt, shortly before it was overrun by the Muslim Arabs.

Tales of the Phillipps Manuscripts #1

Phillipps MS 6551 contains Ptolemy’s Almagest, in the 12th-century Latin translation by Gerard of Cremona, together with several other short astronomical texts. This copy of the translation is particularly interesting because it is derived from two different Arabic versions. It even contains parallel translations of several chapters. The Almagest is the key classical work on astronomy and was originally written in Greek in the 2nd century.

The manuscript was written in Northern Italy in the early 13th century and contains a series of astronomical diagrams. It was probably part of the library of San Marco in Florence by the late 15th century. Phillipps acquired it in 1833 from the booksellers Payne and Foss, and it remained part of the Phillipps library until 1949, when it was sold by the bookseller William H. Robinson to the State Library of Victoria.

It is now one of the treasures of the State Library of Victoria, which has digitized the entire volume and documented it in detail.

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Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts

The initial data for my project are coming from the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts – a marvellous and unique source which should be of value to any researcher studying the history and provenance of medieval European manuscripts. The database contains more than 220,000 entries, derived mainly from sales catalogues. The full database is made available for download in Excel and CSV formats.

The Schoenberg database contains almost 20,000 records relating to Phillipps manuscripts. This is the single largest provenance group, leaving the Bibliotheque nationale de France (15,000) and the British Library (7,500) well behind.

I downloaded the entire Schoenberg dataset and filtered it for all the records relating to Phillipps manuscripts. I then ran it through the OpenRefine software to split out the individual elements in the “Provenance” and “Comments” fields. The next task is to use these to extract all the Phillipps numbers. I will then be able to identify which Phillipps manuscripts are not represented in the Schoenberg database and use this as the basis for linking in information from other sources.

Many thanks to Lynn Ransom and the Schoenberg team for making their data available in this way.

Big data, data modeling, and the history of manuscript collections

The largest personal collection of European manuscripts ever assembled was that of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872). It is estimated to have contained up to 60,000 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The manuscripts had varied geographical origins across Western Europe, were written in many different European languages, and covered a wide range of different subjects and topics. Their dispersal took place gradually over more than one hundred years after Phillipps’ death, and their modern locations are spread across the globe.

In this blog, I will be reporting on a project to reconstruct and analyse the Phillipps Collection. The scale of the Phillipps Collection has proved a significant challenge to traditional research methods. Instead, this project is employing innovative data modeling and analysis techniques in order to trace the history of its component manuscripts, and to map the provenance events and networks which are embodied in the history of the collection.

This project is being funded by a European Union Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship in the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London. For more information about me, go to my Web site.

Toby Burrows