PALEOGRAPHY. Paleography, the science of the critical analysis of ancient scripts, not only makes it possible to read, date, and fix the provenance of documents produced by scribes but also draws out other information of extreme value for the knowledge of the history of culture. In analyzing ancient scripts critically, one has to trace the history of graphic forms and to determine all the special features that characterize the individual scripts, thus making it possible to classify them by age, origin, and function.
Furthermore, this science also includes the study of the materials with which the scribes did their work (and how they used them), such as ink, calamus (reed pen), and the medium on which the text is written. This last would include (a) pliant material, like papyrus, parchment (seldom leather), and (later) paper; (b) rigid materials, such as wood (for mummy labels), potsherds of terra-cotta when suitable (ostraca), and flaked stone of appropriate quality or shape (ostraca); (c) stone or terra-cotta from which a stela or a dedicatory, commemorative, or funerary inscription could be made; (d) the rock wall of a tomb or the like with some inscription carved on it; and (e) an adequately smooth, brightly polished coating of mortar on a wall, representing a whitish surface on which some text or other has been traced on with a brush.
When the medium is a material sufficiently pliable and appropriate (papyrus, parchment, etc.) to take a literary text, either as a scroll, or volumen (but this is uncommon in Coptology), or as a book, or codex (almost always in fact), modern paleography cannot fail to base its findings on those of at least one accessory discipline. For example, codicology analyzes the various processes of codex manufacture, whether as a single quire or as several gathered quires, and studies the way in which the folios were sewn into quires and the quires were sewn together. Codicology also examines such features as the quality of the thread that was used to sew the quires, the presence or absence of tabs, and the binding.
It is easy to understand that the philological study of the Coptic language and its literature (not to mention everything relative to Coptic history) must be based on a chronology of the manuscripts and other written documents that is as precise as possible. However, despite these desiderata, despite the worthy efforts of isolated researchers who edited newly discovered texts and who drew mostly on Greek paleography to resolve the problems encountered case by case, and despite the more systematic efforts of the few Coptologists who have attempted to arrive at a unified view of Coptic writings as a foundation for paleography, at least in outline, this science is still far from reaching the maturity needed to satisfy the most demanding among specialized users. All Coptologists recognize this one fact: Coptic paleography is still a new field.
At the present time, Coptologists have at their disposal three monographs on Coptic paleography. Each one has been more or less useful. They will be reviewed hereafter in chronological order.
As clearly indicated by the title of his work, Hyvernat (1888) never made any attempt to cover the entire field of documents written in Coptic. Therefore, he should not be blamed for giving only one manuscript from the fourth or fifth century (which he placed, moreover, in the sixth) or for providing a very substantial number of specimens dating from the sixth century to the eighteenth century, which most often were produced in beautiful full-page plates. His plates show complete pages of the manuscripts (and thus naturally take up whole pages in his publication). Further, unlike more modern paleographers, Hyvernat never worked properly by analyzing the details of the various scripts; he merely presented and rapidly identified manuscripts he was interested in.
As the length of its title indicates, the work of Stegemann (1936) was a great deal more ambitious (even though in his foreword he gave a very modest estimate indeed of the value of his work). Stegemann tried to include the whole field of strictly Coptic writing in his analysis. He studied both literary scripts and documentary ones, from the earliest uncertain beginnings of Coptic (third century) through the start of its decline (eleventh century) to its death as a living language (fourteenth century). Taking into consideration both the available manuscripts and the state of Greek paleography when Stegemann wrote, one must recognize that this worthy paleographer mostly achieved his goals. Even though some of his conclusions, deductions, and classifications of writing styles might now be contested, no one can deny that he did sterling service for Coptology and that his work is still of substantial use. His Koptische Paläographie remains a necessary reference tool for researchers and will continue to be so as long as Coptology remains without a more effective, fully developed working tool, the product of a modern paleographer expert in Greek and Latin and familiar with discoveries made in these various fields since 1936.
On the one hand, Stegemann compared Coptic manuscripts from the third century to the eighth (which never expressly give their dates) with contemporary Greek manuscripts, thus producing a Coptic paleographic chronology much less rough-and-ready than Hyvernat’s. On the other hand, specimens of Coptic dated (by colophons) are to be found from the ninth century onward, and this enables the paleographer to establish his chronology on a more dependable basis. Simultaneously he tried to analyze and to follow the successive Coptic writing styles in their development. Modern scholars may now censure his tendency to analyze isolated graphemes and to compare them with one another. When he gave more extensive samples, they were nothing more than small rectangles cut out from the middle of a manuscript page. The above-mentioned limitations were the results of inadequate resources for the production of his edition, rather than of his free choice of a particular working principle. That same kind of constraint is naturally experienced by any compiler of contributions to encyclopedias, which explains why this article is also illustrated by extracts from pages rather than whole pages, as is frequently the case in Hyvernat (1888) and Cramer (1964), despite the undoubted fact that a scribe’s handwriting would be much better studied on a whole page. But one must admit that despite these limitations and constraints, Stegemann made the most of the material he sought to organize.
The same cannot be said about the monograph on Coptic paleography by Cramer (1964). Failing to assimilate the progress made in this field after 1936 and too often providing inadequately checked information, this work has not fulfilled Coptologists’ needs; thus, it has been rather disappointing (cf. M. Krause, 1966, an extremely circumstantial report on this subject).
The present article makes no attempt to present a complete survey of the state of Coptic paleography. It is written merely for those of the educated public at large who want to know about the many facets of Coptic civilization in all its brilliance, pending the publication of more-specialized studies. Medieval or Byzantine Coptic writing, which is beautiful even simply as a majuscule script (capitals) and is sometimes, in later periods, illuminated, represents an important mark of civilization to which the reader’s attention must without fail be drawn. Without this, one would have an incomplete, distorted view of this culture.
From the time when Coptic (as the latest form of the Egyptian language) adopted all the signs of the Greek alphabet, augmented by a few additional symbols borrowed from demotic script (cf. ALPHABET IN COPTIC, GREEK; ALPHABETS, COPTIC; LANGUAGE(S), COPTIC), this language expressed itself through the graphic styles specific to Greek writing during late antiquity. Two graphic styles in particular were employed for Coptic (at least for writing books and formal documents): biblical majuscule, or capital letters (see figures 1c, 2a, 2b, 3b, and 4b); and Alexandrian majuscule. Within those two styles of script, two kinds are distinguishable: first, script in letters of uniform character (see figures 2c, 3c, and 4a), and, second, script in letters of contrasted character, wherein broad and narrow graphemes are both found (see figures 5a, 5b, and 5c).
A phenomenon even more peculiar to Coptic graphic usages, although occasionally found in other texts (Greek or bilingual), is the existence of mixed types of script that are a kind of compromise between biblical majuscule and Alexandrian majuscule (see figures 3a and 4c). Other graphic styles borrowed from Greek script can be found (see figures 1a and 1b). Here, however, discussion can suitably be confined to standard categories and fundamental phenomena.
Any attempt to date Coptic scripts by comparing them to Greek scripts raises quite a critical problem. This approach, which may have seemed at first glance the obvious one and which Stegemann (1936) raised to the rank of methodological principle, can hold its own when applied to bilingual (Greek and Coptic) manuscripts. But with manuscripts written only in Coptic, one should be very cautious when making such comparisons. Kahle (1954, Vol. 1, pp. 260-61) rightly noted that “texts which can be dated either on external evidence. . . or on the basis of Greek texts in the same manuscripts. . . reveal a rather different picture from that which we obtain from early Coptic manuscripts which have been dated purely on the basis of Coptic supported by Greek paleography.”
[See PDF version of this article for Figures 1-6.]
Indeed, one finds that in Coptic practice Greek scripts appear as a borrowed element and are frequently related diachronically to the same scripts evolving in Greek usage, so a Coptic script that possesses the same graphic characteristics as a Greek one may nevertheless be of clearly later date. It is possible in this way to explain the contradictions noted by Kahle with their attendant substantial risk that some perspectives may not be correct. Moreover, various hybrids were created by the Copts as they developed many types of script, each of which united characteristics borrowed from several kinds of Greek scripts (especially by mixing biblical and Alexandrian majuscules). This makes a whole series of comparisons and additional contrasts necessary when discussing “mixed” materials of this kind, where the two types of script are present at the same time. As mentioned above, this is especially relevant to the script in books. But clearly, in working out a complete Coptic paleography, it will be essential to examine also the documentary (that is, in some sense informal) scripts—an undertaking beyond the scope of the present encyclopedia.
To enhance the understanding of the above observations, the author has thought it useful to include herein some specimens of Coptic majuscules, while making a very limited selection from what was available and abandoning any attempt to give the reader a complete range of paleography. These specimens, without paleographic comments, are in chronological order. Although restricted, this will constitute a useful visual basis for what could be a small album of Coptic paleography in outline.
Those who need to investigate the subject in a more thorough way should consult Stegemann (1936) and (mostly for medieval manuscripts) Hyvernat (1888), but in view of their relative age they should be handled with caution. Moreover, there is important systematic information in Till (1940) on the Coptic biblical parchments of the Austrian National Library in Vienna; and in Kahle (1954, pp. 269-78) can be found a list of all the Coptic manuscripts from the third-fifth centuries known at that date. However, it must be noted that Till’s work is not illustrated, and Kahle’s, poorly so.
Finally, it is important not to neglect Greek paleographies, among them the chief production of a scholar working particularly in Greek and Greco-Latin paleography and now entering the Coptic paleographic field, G. Cavallo (1967 and 1975).
A great deal of complementary information may be gleaned from numerous Coptic text editions illustrated by photographic plates or by other plates of the same quality, although the dating systems proposed by such different authors cannot be used without extreme caution. Even if one does not consider the real possibility of varying quality levels in the information provided, each author has his own personal tendencies concerning the importance given to the various criteria and his own paleographic sensitivity. Consequently, the accumulation of all these isolated dates is far from constituting a coherent whole and is useful only within the broad outline of a relative chronology.
In the following list, which is no more than a selection of what seems to be most significant, the editions giving the complete photographic reproduction of a manuscript are marked by an asterisk. Such editions are certainly the most useful in every way, paleographically and otherwise, for they not only preserve entirely such fragile witnesses from further destruction but also permit each researcher to check on the details in which he is most interested and which might have been left out of account by the author of the editio princeps.
In order not to encumber the bibliography below with too many items, all the titles that can be found in A Coptic Bibliography (Kammerer, 1950) are excluded and only the names of the authors in alphabetical order and the year of publication appear here, followed by the number in parentheses assigned by Kammerer, now standard: Allberry, 1938 (1665); [Böhlig and Polotsky], 1940 (1700); Böhlig, *; Budge, 1910 (1097) and 1912 (775); Ciasca and Balestri, 1885-1904 (779; has numerous plates of excellent quality that reproduce full pages of medieval manuscripts); Crum, 1893 (718), 1905 (147), 1909 (170), and 1926 (749); Daumas et al., 1969; Farid et al. *l972-1979; Hall, 1905 (1907); Husselman, 1962; Hyvernat, *1922 (726); Kasser, 1958, 1960, *1961 *1962a *1962b *1963, *1964, and *1965; Kasser et al., 1972, *1973, *1975; Leroy, 1974; Malinine et al., *1956, *1963, and *1968; Michalowski, 1965; Monneret de Villard, 1933 (1980); Orlandi, 1974a-b; Plumley, *1975; Polotsky, 1934 (1693); Quecke, 1972, 1977, and 1984; Satzinger, 1967-1968; Schenke, 1981; Schiller, 1973; Schmidt, *1904 (1033), 1908 (1140), and 1919 (1094); Thompson, 1908 (810) and *1924 (980); Wessely, 1915 (890); Worrell, 1923 (751) and 1931 (869); Zoega, 1810 (753).
A selection mainly from idioms other than classical Sahidic (S) and Bohairic (B) includes the following: A: Böhlig *; Schmidt, 1908 (1140) and 1919 (1994). B (prior to the eighth century): Daumas et al., 1969; Kasser et al., 1972. B74: Kasser, 1958; F: Hyvernat, *1922 L4: Allberry, 1938 (1665); [Böhlig and Polotsky], 1940 (1700); Polotsky, 1934 (1693). L5: Thompson, *1924 (980). L6: Kasser et al., *1973 and *1975; Malinine et al., *1956 *1963 and *1968 M: Orlandi, 1974; Schenke, 1981. P: Kasser, 1960. W: Husselman, 1962 (see DIALECTS; LANGUAGE(S), COPTIC).
A variety of illustrated complementary paleographic information can be found in various articles in journals giving space to Coptology (e.g., Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale. Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte, Enchoria, Journal of Coptic Studies, Journal of Egyptian Archeology, and Le Muséon).
The parts of manuscripts reproduced in the six figures here are published with the kind permission of their respective owners, to whom the author tenders warmest thanks: the Vatican Apostolic Library in Vatican City; the National Library in Paris, France; the Martin Bodmer Foundation in Cologny/ Geneva, Switzerland; the British Library in London, England; the Austrian National Library in Vienna; and the State and University Library in Hamburg, West Germany.
Click tabs to swap between content that is broken into logical sections.