The Glasgow Octateuch: One of the most ancient and valuable manuscripts in Europe?

Note approving purchase of Glasgow Octateuch

Note, now bound in at the start of the manuscript, approving its purchase: “Dr Leechman & Dr Lindsay [ie. Lindesay] are appointed to purchase from Robert Foulis the Clementine Octateuch of the Septuagint, being one of the most ancient and valuable MSS in Europe; and to transact with him for the price of it”

Portrait of Thomas More

Thomas More from Boissard’s “Bibliotheca chalcographica…” (Frankfurt, 1628) Sp Coll Hunterian Q.7.10

Bound in at the front of MS Gen 322, The Glasgow Octateuch, is a short handwritten note dated 15th January 1756 which reports the University of Glasgow Senate empowering two of its professors to negotiate the purchase of The Clementine Octateuch, “one of the most ancient and valuable MSS [i.e. manuscripts] in Europe”. The Clementine (subsequently Glasgow ) Octateuch – the first eight books of the Old Testament written in an apparently very early Greek script – was being sold by the noted Glasgow printer and bookseller Robert Foulis (1707-1776). It had a glittering pedigree. Its earliest known owner was none other than Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) Lord High Chancellor and humanist par excellence. It subsequently passed to John Clement (d. 1572), trusted tutor to More’s children and a man sufficiently worthy to get namechecked in More’s Utopia*. In 1568 Clement loaned the Octateuch to the eminent scholar-printer Christophe Plantin (c. 1520-1589) to be used in the preparation of the landmark Antwerp Polyglot Bible** Renaissance provenances just don’t really get much better than this. But ancient? Just how old is the Glasgow Octateuch?

Calculating the age of an early book can be surprisingly difficult. This is certainly the case for manuscripts produced in an age before nice, clear, helpfully dated titlepages developed***. While scribes occasionally noted the date of completion at the end of the manuscript they frequently didn’t, leaving us scratching our heads and guessing ****. Establishing a date for these undated works relies on, amongst other things, attending to various features of the handwriting (shape, style, spelling), the materials used and their preparation (ink, vellum, paper/watermarks, ruling) as well as clues from within the text itself (e.g. events for which a date is already known, so establishing an earliest possible composition date).  More recently, modern scientific dating techniques like carbon dating have also played a role in helping to investigate the age of books*5. Yet even with these new scientific techniques dating remains imprecise, provisional and often contested, changing as new information becomes available and technology and scholarship advances.

The opening leaf of the Octateuch, with John Clement's inscription at the head bequeathing the manuscript to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. For more on this see note ** at foot.

The opening leaf of the Octateuch, with John Clement’s inscription at the head bequeathing the manuscript to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. For more on this see note ** at foot.

Detail of a section of the Octateuch's script

Detail of a section of the Octateuch’s script

The Octateuch was examined in 1785 by pioneering biblical critic Alexander Geddes (1737-1802) who collated it and wrote a full description which is still bound in at the front of the volume today. He described it as a small folio written on oriental cotton paper. It is written, he declared, “in that sort of running hand, that gradually took [the] place of the uncial”. He went on to confirm the Octateuch’s antiquity: “It may be of the ninth; but it may, likewise, be of the 10th 11th or even 12th century. Latter [sic], I think, it cannot be.”  An early dating for the manuscript (no later than 12th century) remained the consensus up to at least 1836, with first Holmes and Parsons, then three separate Library manuscript catalogues and Haenel all deferring to Geddes’s view*6. The first sign of dissent appeared in 1888, in a work by University Librarian William P. Dickson, which acknowledged the manuscript’s interesting provenance but noted that it was “hardly perhaps ‘one of the most ancient and valuable MSS. in Europe'”*7. Specific challenges to the early date soon followed with first Henry Barclay Swete assigning it to the 15th century before Tisserant, Rahlfs, and then Brooke and McLean all followed suit*8. So in the half century that passed between the 1830s and 1880s rather than age by 50 years the Glasgow Octateuch had apparently grown 300 years younger!

So why the redating? Well, in truth, I can’t locate the smoking gun and my knowledge of Greek palaeography, Greek orthography and their histories isn’t up to the job of suggesting the reasons why. One possibility might be hinted at by Eugène Tisserant, who clearly examined the manuscript before dating it to the 15th century, as he specifically made several observations regarding its orthography. Perhaps fresh analysis of orthography alone was sufficient to redate. The only firm reason I can locate for the new dating is one provided by Alfred Rahlfs who assigned the work to the 15th century “nach Angabe der Bibliotheks-Verwalten” (ie. “according to the Library management”). In other words, the manuscript was 15th century because our University of Glasgow librarian predecessors told him so! Well this is curious; at what point did the 19th century librarians realise the manuscript was not as old as had previously been thought? A final clue may lie in a small pencil note on an early flyleaf: “Dr Dibdin says the date of the MS is from 1400 to 1450”. In this case Dr Dibdin is likely the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776-1847) a bibliographer and bibliophile celebrated for the overblown style of his prose *9. Dibdin described a visit to the University Library in his 1838 A bibliographical, antiquarian and picturesque tour in the northern counties of England and in Scotland in which he described a number of the more interesting manuscripts and early printed books. Sadly for us however, he made no specific mention of the Octateuch, signing off in his inimitable style: “The attentions of the librarians are as kind as unremitting–and I was allowed to linger as long as I pleased in the Boyd-Boudoir. O rare felicity!” Dibdin was a prolific writer yet I can find no specific mention in any of his works of the Glasgow Octateuch; possibly he saw the manuscript during his visit, mentioned to the librarians that it was incorrectly dated but decided it wasn’t worthy of mention in print. The most recent cataloguing of the manuscript, Ian C. Cunningham’s 1982 Greek Manuscripts in Scotland: summary catalogue, with addendum maintains the 15th century dating established at the turn of the last century and, presumably that’s the way it will stay. Presumably… [see update *10 below]

Pencil note on dating of the manuscript

Pencil note on dating of the manuscript: “Dr Dibdin[?] says the date of the MS is from 1400 to 1450”. See note *9 below for a possible variant reading of this.

References and notes

*”I do not allow [Clement] to absent himself from any talk which can be somewhat profitable, for from this young plant, seeing that it has begun to put forth green shoots in Greek and Latin literature, I expect no mean harvest some day.” (More, Utopia, 41). – see ODNB []

**See Grantley McDonald “Thomas More, John Clement and the Palatine Anthology” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance – Tome LXXV – 2013 No 2 – note 30; and particularly see:  J. Lionel North “A Glasgow Octateuch and a Leiden Psalter, two Old Testament manuscripts formerly belonging to Dr John Clement (ca. 1500-1572) History and Hypothesis” in The Temple in text and tradition: a festschrift in honour of Robert Hayward. Exactly what happened to the manuscript after Clement and Plantin is unknown. Despite a 1563 inscription in Clement’s hand bequeathing the book to Corpus Christi College Oxford, Neil Ker has stated that it is very unlikely that the work ever arrived (see N. Ker in J. McConica, ed. The History of the University of Oxford (Oxford, Clarendon, 1984-97) vol 3 p454 note 6 – cited in J. Lionel North p.221 note 14)

***like manuscripts the very earliest handpress printed books – incunabula – didn’t have titlepages either. Titlepages in printed books didn’t develop until the 1460s and weren’t common until the end of the 15th century.

****even if a dated colophon is included in a manuscript, one has to be wary of the date since scribes copying out a manuscript from an earlier exemplar occasionally copied the earlier colophon date too.

*5 See e.g. the Birmingham Qu’ran fragment:

*6 See Holmes and Parsons Vetus Testamentum Graecum cum variis lectionibus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1798-1823) – v.1, Praefation ad pentateuchum, n. 59; Note of MSS in the Library of the University of Glasgow (1805) – MS Gen 329; Press catalogue of manuscripts in Glasgow University Library (1828) – MS Gen 332; Note of MSS in the Library of the University of Glasgow ([c.1833]) – MS Gen 331; John Ferguson Catalogue of the manuscripts in the Library of the University of Glasgow (1836) – MS Gen 330; Gustav Haenel Catalogi librorum manuscriptorum, qui in bibliothecis Galliae, Helvetiae, Belgii, Britanniae… (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1830), p. 784.

*7 William P. Dickson The Glasgow University Library: notes on its history, arrangements and aims (Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons, 1888), p.29

*8 See: Henry B. Swete An introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge: CUP, 1900) p. 150; Eugène Tisserant Codex Zuqninensis rescriptus Veteris Testamenti (Rome: Tipografica Poliglotta Vaticana, 1911) p. xli; Alfred Rahlfs Verzeichnis der griechischen Handschriften des Alten Testaments, für das Septuaginta-Unternehmen aufgestellt (Berlin: Weidmann, 1914), pp. 72-3; Alan E. Brooke & Norman McLean The Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge: CUP, 1917), p. ix.

*9 It is worth noting that J. Lionel North transcribes this as “Dr Dibelius…” rather than “Dr Dibdin”. If North is correct then perhaps Dr Martin Dibelius (1883-1947), a German New Testament scholar is the likeliest bet. If the note does refer to Dibelius, born in 1883, he presumably can’t have redated the manuscript prior to, e.g. Swete in 1900. I believe “Dibdin” is the likeliest reading.

*10 Update 20/1/16: Underlining the provisional nature of all dating of this type, no sooner had I published this blog than David Weston, former Head of Special Collections, contacted me to offer his advice on the dating. While the script – a late Byzantine minuscule – was still in use in the early 15th century, the paper evidence, in David’s opinion, may suggest a slightly earlier date. The paper used for the manuscript is bombykinon, a light brownish paper with a shiny surface and no watermarks. This paper was used primarily between c. 1050 and c. 1350 (see: John Lowden, “Book production” in E. Jeffrys, John F. Haldon, and Robin Cormack (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies (Oxford: OUP, 2008), p. 464). As such, David Weston suggests a 14th century date for this manuscript is most likely given this evidence.

Categories: Special Collections

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