Chancery Writing and Greek Literature

Having spent some time in my last post looking at P.Berol. inv. 11532 and its remarkable handwriting, I am reminded of a couple classic articles by formidable palaeographic experts. The first is a long and in depth study of this type of this type of script (sometimes called “the Alexandrian chancery script of Subatianus Aquila”) by Guglielmo Cavallo, “La scrittura del P. Berol. 11532: Contributo allo studio dello stile di cancelleria nei papiri greci di età romana” published in 1965 (not freely available online as far as I can tell, but purchasable for a not entirely unreasonable price here). Cavallo made a detailed description of the script and brought together several photographic plates containing many samples of similar writing.

P.Berol. inv. 11532; image source: Berliner Papyrusdatenbank

The second article that was on my mind is a short but interesting piece by Eric Turner published in 1956. Turner drew attention to P.Ryl. I 59, small fragment of papyrus published by Arthur S. Hunt in 1911 (Hunt’s original publication can be viewed online here). The papyrus contains the opening words of Demosthenes, De corona copied six times in a hand that shares a number of features with that of P.Berol. inv. 11532.

Writing exercise on papyrus, P.Ryl. Gr. I 59; Copyright of the University of Manchester; image source: John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester

Turner notes the similarities and differences as follows:

“Comparison of the Rylands fragment with [P.Berol. inv. 11532] shows the same exaggerated narrowness and tallness of letters like ο, θ, σ (while η, ν, and τ are allowed to remain fairly broad), a compression probably governed by the desire to keep all the letters within the limits of two generously spaced parallel lines and at the same time to make them fill the vertical distance between these lines. Again, in both examples, the pen has been allowed to rest for a moment at the instant of contact, forming oblique series or circlets in the Rylands text, hooks in that in Berlin. Two letters in the Rylands exercise have a form closer to that of bookhand than their counterparts in the Berlin order: α (which unlike the Berlin α remains firmly planted on the lower line and does not float to the surface of the upper line) has no loop or cross-bar and is strikingly like a contemporary Roman a; ε, if less elongated, could be paralleled from many an example of the so-called ‘severe’ style…”

Turner draws several lessons from this piece (his full article can be viewed online here), but I will emphasize just one: “The fact that a budding chancery scribe should practise by copying a line of Demosthenes seems to confirm that principle of the absence in the ancient world of a sharp division between bookhands and documentary hands.”

This quotation in turn reminds me of another writing exercise that I’ve mentioned here before, P.Oxy. 31.2604, a badly damaged papyrus fragment. Here is how its editors described it:

“On the recto, a document, almost wholly effaced; the few remaining traces are of writing in a practised upright official hand of the third century A.D., written with a very fine pen….It is probably the same scribe who has written on the verso (again with a fine pen) a hexameter line three times; the first in cramped, tall, upright letters of ‘chancery’ type; the second time in similar writing, but a little larger; and finally in large uncial letters, decorated with serifs; the Θ is of an archaic shape, with a central dot instead of a cross-bar.”

Pieces like these writing exercises serve as useful reminders that many ancient copyists were capable of writing in different styles, and many may have been proficient in copying different kinds of texts that included both documents and literary works.

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