A fragment from the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, featuring the text of the Greek Gospels on purple parchment.

British collectors of Greek manuscripts

Cillian O’Hogan surveys how a number of manuscripts came to be in the British Library through the actions of successive British collectors over the centuries.

The Greek manuscripts now at the British Library came into the Library’s possession through a variety of routes. Many came from the collections of some of the most famous British manuscript collectors of recent centuries. By tracing briefly the development of the collection, and by focusing in particular on some of the individuals who assembled large libraries of Greek manuscripts, we can see the importance of wealthy bibliophiles throughout the ages in helping to assemble this great group.

The story begins with the most celebrated manuscript collector in British history, Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631). Cotton is known to have travelled widely across Europe to acquire manuscripts, and although his collection only includes four Greek manuscripts, one of those was Cotton’s favourite manuscript. The Cotton Genesis, now only in fragments after the fire of Ashburnham House in 1731, dates from the 6th century and contains the text of Genesis in Greek, accompanied by extensive illumination. Its prime place in Cotton’s collection is evidence of the fact that even in the early 17th century, a time when Greek learning was still not widespread in England, and the science of palaeography was only in its infancy, there was strong interest in books that clearly dated from antiquity.

Cotton Genesis

A fire-damaged page from the Cotton Genesis, featuring a large illumination depicting Abraham meeting two angels.

Badly damaged in the Ashburnham House Fire of 1731, the Cotton Genesis was Sir Robert Cotton’s most prized possession (Cotton MS Otho B VI)

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

It is not until a century later, however, that we see the first real substantial assembly of Greek manuscripts by English collectors in the Harleian collection, which makes up around a quarter of all the Greek manuscripts now in the British Library. These manuscripts were mostly acquired via agents who travelled in the Levant, or from existing collections that were being broken up and sold on. One particularly notable group, acquired in 1716, consists of the manuscripts acquired by Dr John Covel, who had served as a chaplain in Constantinople in the mid-17th century. The Harleian Greek manuscripts are of a variety of types, but particularly well-represented are lavishly-illuminated bible manuscripts and important manuscripts of classical authors.

Earliest manuscript of Lucian

A text page from a 10th-century manuscript of Lucian's Dialogues, featuring marginal notes and corrections.

This 10th-century copy of the works of Lucian, purchased by Robert Harley in 1726, is a good example of the type of manuscript collected by Harley (Harley MS 5694)

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

Together with the Cotton and Harleian manuscripts, the Sloane manuscripts made up the Foundation Collections of the British Museum, which formed the basis of the collection when the institution was founded in 1753. Relatively few Greek manuscripts make up the Sloane collection, but those that do mostly deal with medical matters, fitting given Sloane’s profession as a physician. Interestingly, two other important English collectors of Greek manuscripts in the 18th century were also physicians: Richard Mead (d. 1754) and Anthony Askew (d. 1774). Askew, in particular, built up a large collection of manuscripts, acquiring some from Mead and others while travelling in Greece and the Levant. Several of his manuscripts appear to have been acquired on Mount Athos. At Askew’s death, the British Museum acquired a number of his manuscripts, and more of Askew’s volumes would be acquired in later years. The interests of Askew and Mead were by no means limited to medical matters, and Askew’s volumes included beautiful Gospel books, such as the volume containing the famous Golden Canon Tables.

Golden Canon Tables

One of the Golden Canon Tables, written on gold paint, with elaborate floral decoration and a small portrait of a haloed man.

An important witness to late antique book illumination, the fragmentary Golden Canon Tables were inserted into a later Gospel book owned by Anthony Askew (Add MS 5111)

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Public Domain

The 19th century saw much greater interest in the acquisition of Greek materials for the British Museum. Philhellenism was on the rise, especially in the years leading up to and immediately following the Greek War of Independence (1821–29), and many individuals who travelled to or worked in Greece or the Levant assembled considerable collections at this time.

Perhaps no British bibliophile was more committed to the acquisition of Greek manuscripts than Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford (1766–1827). The son of Lord North (Prime Minister 1770–1782), he was a renowned colonial governor and philhellene in the early 19th century. He travelled widely as a young man, especially in Greece, and founded the Ionian Academy on Corfu in 1824, donating his many books and manuscripts to the university library. Declining health necessitated a return to England, where he died in 1827. Complications relating to his will meant that his library was removed from the Ionian Academy and returned to England, where the manuscripts were dispersed at auction. The British Museum acquired a number of these items at the first sale of Guilford’s library in 1830. Many of the other Greek volumes made their way into the collections of book collectors such as Richard Heber (founder of the Athenaeum) and Samuel Butler, Bishop of Lichfield. Some of these Guilford manuscripts later entered the British Museum at the subsequent estate sales of later collectors.

The other major collector of the first half of the 19th century was Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche (1810–1873). Curzon was a renowned traveller and manuscript-hunter of the early Victorian era. As a young man, he journeyed widely in Greece and in the Near East, recording his adventures in a hugely popular book called Visits to Monasteries in the Levant. Curzon amassed a sizeable collection of Greek and Oriental manuscripts, as well as a range of western European volumes. On his death, over 200 of these manuscripts were placed on loan to the British Museum, and were bequeathed to the Museum in the will of his daughter, Darea Curzon, in 1917.

No discussion of the manuscript trade in the 19th century can go without mentioning the towering figure of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792–1872), who went beyond simple bibliophilia to a self-confessed bibliomania. Phillipps frequently expressed his desire to own a copy of every book in existence, and he possessed over 100,000 manuscripts. These naturally included Greek manuscripts, many of which were acquired at the Guilford sale in 1830. After Phillipps’ death in 1872, his collection of manuscripts was gradually sold off. A number of these, including many volumes that had previously belonged to Guilford, are now in the British Library.

Works of Justin Martyr

A page from a 16th-century manuscript of the works of Justin Martyr, featuring a note in red ink in the margin.

This volume, one of the many belonging to Phillipps, is among the most recent Greek manuscripts acquired by the British Library. It was purchased in 2006, though had been on deposit as a loan since 1949 (Add MS 82951)

View images from this item  (3)

Usage terms Public Domain

In the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, the sources of acquisition for the British Museum’s manuscripts indicate the widespread interest in Greek culture amongst members of the nobility or aspiring nobility. In addition to the now-expected sources such as consuls and clerics stationed in the Mediterranean, two figures stand out, not least because they are united by a singular manuscript. The Welsh industrialist, Sir Ivor Bertie Guest (1835–1914), was a self-made man who struggled to establish himself in high society despite his wealth. The 16 manuscripts he acquired probably in Janina, and later sold to the British Museum, perhaps reveal a conscious effort to appeal to the philhellenism of the upper class. The well-known philanthropist Angelina, Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906) also collected a small number of Greek manuscripts, which were presented to Highgate School and later purchased by the British Museum at auction. Remarkably, two manuscripts, one acquired by Guest (Additional 28815) and one acquired by an agent working for Burdett-Coutts (Egerton 3145), once formed a single manuscript, a rare example of a complete New Testament Greek manuscript with lavish illumination.

Guest-Coutts New Testament

A portrait of the Evangelist St Luke writing on a long scroll, from the Guest-Coutts New Testament.

This manuscript, a complete new testament, was divided in half probably in the 19th century and sold separately to Guest and Burdett-Coutts. The two volumes were reunited at the British Museum in the 1930s (Add MS 28815/Egerton 3145)

View images from this item  (5)

Usage terms Public Domain

  • Cillian O’Hogan
  • Dr Cillian O’Hogan is Assistant Professor of Medieval Latin at the University of Toronto, where he specialises in the Latin poetry of Late Antiquity and the transmission and transformation of classical literature in the early Middle Ages. He has published on the late Latin poets Prudentius and Claudian and on the medieval Irish translation of the Latin epic poet Lucan. He is writing a book on the history of reading in the Late Antique Latin west. Previously, he was Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at the British Library.