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Greek liturgical manuscripts

In addition to the many surviving copies of Greek biblical texts, a wide range of manuscripts dealing with church services survive from the Byzantine era. Here, Peter Toth gives a brief overview of this material.

There exists a very large and confusingly diverse group of Greek manuscripts containing different texts and documents related to religious services of the Greek Church, which are generally placed under the umbrella of liturgical texts and manuscripts.

The term ‘liturgy’, originally used for voluntary public services in Athenian democracy, now designates all kinds of religious services. As a public act of worship, liturgy has two main forms in the Christian tradition:

  • Liturgy of the Eucharist, with the celebration of the Holy Communion at its centre
  • Liturgy of the Hours, or the office comprising all other services without Communion.

A common feature of these two main types of Christian liturgy is that they both have a twofold structure involving recitation of:

  • Biblical texts from the Old and the New Testament, as well as
  • Non-biblical prose and poetic compositions, such as prayers, hymns, chants, etc.

Biblical manuscripts of the liturgy

As liturgy was the primary context of the use and reading of the Bible in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the main types of the extant biblical manuscripts are closely related to specific religious services and are – therefore – liturgical manuscripts themselves. New Testament readings were mostly applied in Eucharistic services, while the Old Testament was used mainly in the office, at services without the celebration of the Eucharist. Readings selected from biblical books were therefore arranged according to these requirements.

New Testament readings were assembled in two main collections:

  • Gospel Books contained the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with an elaborate finding aid to identify relevant readings for Sundays and feasts
  • The Praxapostolos contained the Acts and the Epistles with reading instructions and chants related to lections.

Old Testament writings and passages used at services were arranged in two forms:

  • The Psalter contained the Book of Psalms, structured according to liturgical needs into 20 sections with three subsections in each
  • The Prophetologion contained all other Old Testament readings with relevant chants according to the order of the feasts they were applied at.

Non-biblical liturgical manuscripts

Although biblical collections often contain additional, non-scriptural material (introductory chants, prayers and hymns), these texts soon started to be recorded independently. In the early centuries of the Church, however, these documents were collected in a random and sporadic manner without forming standardised collections of prayers or hymns.

Liturgical papyrus

A liturgical papyrus (Papyrus 873)

This 5th-century fragment contains the text of an evening prayer that is still in use in the Greek Church at festal Compline services. It is an early example of a process whereby hymns and prayers are assembled into a continuous sequence corresponding to liturgical needs (Papyrus 873)

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Standardised service-books

The Christianisation of the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE brought not only the spread of Christianity across the Mediterranean, but also a need to unify divergent liturgical practices. It was this demand that prompted the gradual consolidation and codification of the different Eucharistic and non-Eucharistic services of Greek-speaking Christians. As a result of this process there were specific liturgical collections created that contained the right form, text and order of the various prayers and actions performed at specific services.

Books of the Eucharistic service

The liturgy of the Eucharist (the Mass of the Western tradition, traditionally called the Divine Liturgy in Greek) has several distinct forms in the Greek church that are ascribed either to apostolic figures, as the liturgy of St Mark the Evangelist or the Apostle James, or church authorities such as St Basil, St John Chrysostom or Pope Gregory the Great. These liturgies consist of a long sequence of prayers, supplications, chants and hymns, culminating in the celebration of the Holy Communion. The book that contained all these is called a liturgikon. Earlier versions contained only one liturgy on a papyrus or later parchment roll, a form used to ensure that everything is performed in the correct order.

Liturgical roll from the 12th century

This 12th-century parchment-roll is a good example of the long-lived tradition of liturgical rolls. It contains all the texts and prayers together with the necessary actions, movements and gestures, written in red (Add MS 22749)

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Further regulations in the 9th and 10th centuries prescribed that the standard Eucharistic liturgy was to be that of St John Chrysostom and that the two others, by St Basil and Pope Gregory, were to be used at specific Lenten occasions only. After this, the liturgies were recorded together in a new book-format. Unlike the rolls containing one specific service only, these new compendia contained all liturgies in one volume that made orientation easier for the practising priest.

Illuminated manuscript of the Divine Liturgies

Illuminated Manuscript of the Divine Liturgies (Add MS 40755 f002r)

This is a typical compendium of all three standard Byzantine liturgies. The liturgies are arranged according to the frequency with which they are used in the Greek Church with that of St John Chrysostom coming first and St Basil’s and Gregory’s following it (Add MS 40755)

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Books of the Office

In contrast to the general uniformity of the liturgikon, service books of the office have a very complex history and a diverse manuscript tradition. Non-Eucharistic services have a characteristically dual structure. They consist of a general framework of prayers and hymns, a skeleton that remains the same throughout the liturgical year, and a series of other texts that changes according to the church calendar.

The skeleton of all non-Eucharistic services of the Greek Church is recorded in and regulated by a book called Horologion (the book of hours).

12th-century Horologion

12th-century Horologion (Add MS 31214 f033v)

The beginning of the early morning service, the Matins (Add MS 31214)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The body of the service, filling out the ‘skeleton’ with all the chants and hymns reflecting the days of the Easter period (moveable feasts) and the calendar (fixed feasts), is contained in various other collections.  Chants and hymns are arranged according to the system of eight different melodies, called tones, collecting all the various genres of Greek liturgical poetry, smaller and larger units alike, under Tones 1–8. This collection, the Oktoechos (‘the book of eight tones’), contains eight different series of chants and hymns for all days of the week.

Hymns from Sinai

The beginning of tone 3 with an iconic new genre of the 9th century: a long poem of nine stanzas, called canon (Add MS 26113)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Books of the fixed feasts

Prayers and chants for the fixed feasts of the liturgical calendar, although composed in the same eight-tone system, were collected in calendrical order. Ranging from September to August, these collections contained chants for each day of a month and were hence called the book of the month, or Menaion.

13th-century Menaion

A Menaion from the 13th century (Egerton MS 2743 f017r)

The beginning of the day’s service for 1 April, the Feast of the penitent St Mary of Egypt, whose name is written in red under the decorated headpiece (Egerton MS 2743)

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Books of the moveable feasts

Changing parts of the Lenten and Eastern services, not bound to the fixed calendar but moving according to the actual calculation of the Easter date, were collected in two other collections. Lenten services, structured according to the seven weeks of the Great Lent, were assembled in the Triodion; special services of the period between Easter and Pentecost were included in the book called Pentekostarion.

The rich diversity of Greek liturgical manuscripts, introduced briefly in this article, is amply reflected in the collection of the British Library. These manuscripts can be explored at length on the Digitised Manuscripts website

  • Peter Toth
  • Peter Toth earned his MA in Egyptology and Classics and his PhD in Classics. After a 10-year curatorship of medieval manuscripts at the University Library Budapest, he had various research projects at The Warburg Institute and King’s College London before he joined the British Library in 2016 as curator of ancient and medieval manuscripts. His main interest is in cultural interaction in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages via translations of texts and ideas from one language and tradition to the other.