After 1453: Greek Manuscripts in the Ottoman Empire and Beyond

In recent decades, the Manuscripts Division has acquired more than 130 post-Byzantine Greek manuscripts, dating from the Fall of Constantinople (1453) until Greek Independence from the Ottoman Empire (1832). A number of these later Greek manuscripts are from adjacent areas, such as Wallachia and the Venetian-ruled islands of the Eastern Mediterranean. Princeton also has manuscripts produced by Greek scholars and scribes in Renaissance Italy after the fall of Byzantium. The Library has acquired these manuscripts in part by gift and in part by purchase, with matching funds from the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, with the support of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund.

Recent additions to the open series Princeton Greek Manuscripts include a Iatrosophion (Ἰατροσόφιον), meaning “medical wisdom” (C0879, no. 131). Such compendia for daily medical practice had existed in the Byzantine Empire and continued to be used through the end of the nineteenth century. Princeton’s Iatrosophion, measuring 15.5 x 10.5 cm, is comprised of approximately seventy sections, written by at least five different hands. The volume may be a composite volume cobbled together from small portable paper notebooks of similar trim size. Unidentified local medical practitioners and folk healers on the island of Crete were the compilers and users of the contents of the Iatrosophion, between the late sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. This volume contains extracts from Greek medical treatises and materia medica, along with folk remedies, astrological medicine, lists of good-luck and bad-luck days for blood-letting, invocations of angels and demons, amuletic texts, charms, spells, and prognostications. Here and there, one sees magical script, Cabalistic symbols, Zodiacal signs, and pseudo-Solomonic seals. Particularly attractive are the watercolors of medicinal plants illustrating sections on herbal remedies. The plant illustrated in the manuscript image below is probably Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), an herb used since antiquity because it was believed to have medicinal value in treating dysentery, rheumatism, and other ailments. The manuscript was in such poor condition when acquired, it was almost unusable. Fortunately, it has now been skillfully conserved and rebound by Mick LeTourneaux, Rare Books Conservator, in the Library’s Collections Conservation Unit.

There are several other Greek medical and magical compilations in Princeton Greek Manuscripts (C0879), including Constantine Rhizotes’s medical commonplace book of ca. 1617 (no. 17) and an abridged Greek translation of a seventeenth-century Italian treatise on women’s health and gynecology (no. 124). Those that date before 1600 are cataloged in Princeton Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts (C0938). Most post-1453 Greek manuscripts in Princeton’s collections are text manuscripts. But some are illuminated, illustrated, or are in finely executed contemporary Greek bindings. This growing collection includes theology, philosophy, chronicles, treatises on rhetoric, compilations of canon law (Nomokanon), commentaries on classical and Patristic texts; Greek Orthodox service books and anthologies of liturgical music written in post-Byzantine and Chrysantine music notation; illustrated guide books (Proskynetaria) for travelers and pilgrims visiting the Christian sacred sites in the Holy Land; collections of hymns, prayers, and poetry; and other subjects. All attest to the continuity and vitality of religious life, Hellenic learning, classroom education, traditional beliefs, and book arts among the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire and beyond.

Nearly all of these post-Byzantine Greek manuscripts have been separately cataloged and can be searched in the Library’s online catalog. For more information, contact Public Services at rbsc@princeton.edu

Iatrosophion (C0879, no. 131)

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