Manuscript production in medieval Cyprus for church rituals

by Dr Marina Toumpouri, University of Cyprus

The inaugural post on NetMAR’s blog by Lars Boje Mortensen brought up recent debates regarding the complexity of medieval written records and the multiplicity of expressions, values, practices, and systems of knowledge from which they have been created. Whether interested in the materiality or in the content of medieval manuscripts (textual, iconographic, or decorative), scholars have been concerned with detecting those features that could shed light on the specific conditions that brought these manuscripts into being, just as they have been interested in the date and locality of their production. Clarifying the issue of provenance of manuscripts in the absence of internal evidence (inscriptions mentioning places or persons, direct or indirect references to rites etc. pointing to specific geographical areas) and of external documentation (wills, inventories, acquisition records etc.) turns out to be a challenging task.

In the case of Greek surviving manuscripts, our knowledge regarding their provenance, their history of ownership, and transmission is generally far more fragmentary than is the case with their Western counterparts. This is mainly because the estimated large number of Greek manuscripts which have perished without leaving any traces has created huge and significant gaps in our knowledge regarding scribes and miniaturists, production and dissemination centres, and networks. Moreover, the fact that most of these manuscripts were relocated from the territories in which they were produced and/or used to find refuge mainly in Western European collections has also led to the permanent erasure of traces of their presence and use. This evidence, equally tangible and intangible, could elucidate networks of relationships between manuscripts; the manuscripts and other movable objects still found in situ; immovable monuments and sites, localities, persons, groups; as well as the practices in which these books were engaged.

Beyond the paucity of evidence, there are still many challenging questions regarding more generally the context, patterns, and the localities of production of Greek manuscripts, which remain open and invite further investigation. First, the documentation and precise whereabouts of the different centres of production that existed in the Byzantine provinces, as well as in localities beyond the empire’s borders yet under its cultural influence, are practically absent. But then, if Constantinople had indeed a role as decisive as we generally tend to believe, as far as the establishment and transmission of new cultural trends in the provinces, undoubtedly this was not happening in a homogeneous and consistent manner in all the territories and throughout all the centuries of the empire’s existence. For instance, in the cases of Palestine or Thessaloniki, it is impossible to have an estimation as to the role played by the Byzantine capital diachronically in the formation of their respective cultural, spiritual, and intellectual traditions. The same with appreciating the various aesthetic and technological developments that occurred and which are detectable in manuscripts from different periods produced in these two areas. But even though we cannot have any doubt regarding the intense activity of the centres of production of manuscripts active in the capital, such as those attached to the imperial court or the important monasteries of Stoudios or Odigon, other provinces or regions had also assumed during different periods the role of prominent centres of intellectual, spiritual and artistic activities. This is for instance the case with Mount Athos, the direct impact of which can be detected in the synthesis fixated in liturgical manuscripts during the late Byzantine period, pointing to the fluctuating relationships and the intricate mechanisms that allowed different ways of interaction between the capital and different provinces; or, at a smaller scale, between provinces, and even regions. Nevertheless, this kind of phenomena have not been constrained within the borders of the empire, since a variety of patterns of interaction with other cultural traditions and ethnic groups can be traced diachronically. The outputs of different manuscript production centres located in different areas of the Byzantine provinces or in regions outside the empire’s borders bear also evidence of interlacing between imported and local practices.

Manuscript production in medieval Cyprus

The island of Cyprus was one among those Byzantine provinces in which manuscript production centres – mainly monasteries – were operating. Their output, whether this was conditioned by the needs of the monks/nuns exclusively or was also responding to the demands of external individuals or communities, is unknown. What we do know is that, during the medieval period, the island certainly didn’t become a prominent intellectual or literary centre. Neither excellence in education, nor the flourishing of the sciences and the letters were among the top priorities of the rulers of Cyprus. Given the island’s positioning at the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire and, later, as the eastern sea border of the Christian world (following the fall of Acre in 1291), it mostly played a central role in military and commercial matters in the region.

As in the case of other provincial centres producing Greek manuscripts, our current knowledge regarding those centres active in Cyprus is still considerably limited. The significant losses of manuscripts over several centuries, as well as the wide geographical scattering of Cypriot manuscript heritage, have considerably hampered scholarly interest in Cypriot manuscripts. Even though efforts in this direction are relatively recent, it was possible to acquire knowledge regarding manuscript production in monasteries, in which no evidence is preserved regarding the holdings of their libraries, the copying of texts, or other activities that can be related to the different stages of production of manuscripts, like, for example, the production of parchment. One such case is the Monastery ton Hiereon in the Paphos area, known to have flourished between the tenth and the twelfth century. In other cases, the monasteries are known exclusively by references in the manuscripts in their belonging, such as the Monastery of Saint John Eleimon in Trachonas, where the Lectionary Crakow, Jagiellonian Library, Berlin, MS graec. 1°.51 was produced in 1193.

With the arrival of the Franks in 1192, the political connection of Cyprus with the Byzantine empire was significantly severed. As in the case of other provinces of the Byzantine empire captured and ruled by Westerners belonging to different ethnic groups, the cultural horizon of the island was drastically expanded. It consequently became a space where the pre-existing Byzantine tradition was elaborated and interlaced with imported elements, leading to the plurality of visual and material expressions that have developed on the island throughout the Lusignan and the Venetian periods (1192-1571).

It would be therefore reasonable to assume that, with the replacement of the ruling elites – essentially of Constantinopolitan descendance – by a feudal class of Western origins, previously established for a century or so on the Crusader mainland, the significant changes in religious practices, administration, and social structures, would not have left unscathed the architectural landscape of Cyprus. Indeed, post-1191 religious buildings bespeak the appearance of a new architectural language in the urban centres of the island, where the Latin ecclesiastical elites and the ruling classes were established. This being far from surprising, one would assume that the situation was similar in the case of other areas of artistic/artefactual production, such as that of manuscripts. It could be therefore presumed that there was, if not an interruption, then at least a decline of output and/or a deterioration in the quality of the Greek manuscripts produced. On the other hand, one would justifiably expect a radical shift in the methods of production, the introduction of a variety of totally new visual characteristics imported from the West. One would also expect the establishment of a scriptorium attached to the Lusignan court, responsible for the preparation and promulgation of official documents, while it would not be farfetched to assume that it could have been also responsible to produce theological, scientific, literary or liturgical texts for the Latin community.

However, if the production of the so‑called “decorative style” group of manuscripts was, as suggested, centred in the area of Cyprus and Palestine, the actual situation must have been resolutely different. With over one hundred and fifteen members produced between c. 1150‑1290, the group is all that is known of Byzantine illuminated manuscript production in the twelfth century and the only known group of deluxe Greek manuscripts from the first half of the thirteenth century. The obvious question raised pertains to issues of patronage, given that Palestine was under Muslim rule at the time, while the island’s pre-1191 ruling elites who could afford such luxurious assets have been replaced. Hence, we do not know whether they fled the island or moved outside the urban centres, where the foundation of new monuments – including frescoed ones – was not hindered. Alternatively, the emergence and expansion of a production of illuminated books spanning a century may have been favoured by the burgeoning pilgrimage traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean, which allowed painters and scribes to remain and work in the region.

Evidence that the production of the members of the “decorative style” group was oriented towards private consumption is apposite. As observed by Weyl Carr (Byzantine Illumination 1150–1250: The Study of a Provincial Tradition, University of Chicago Press, 1987), the service books – the ones usually receiving illumination in Byzantium – are a minority in the group, accounting for less than 10% of the whole. Indicatively, the seventy Tetraevangelia form most of the group. The picture that emerges from the manuscripts’ content is analogous, given that the liturgical equipment, the section, and the canon numbers are both insufficient and inconsistent, while the canon tables are occasionally either deficient or empty, contrasting their profuse decoration that is indicative of their private consumption.

What survives beyond this group is far less heterogeneous and raises the obvious question of the production of both Greek and Western liturgical manuscripts on the island. The evidence we possess regarding the production of Greek manuscripts up to the end of the sixteenth century beyond being very meagre constitutes a manifestation of continuity. The manuscripts are mainly Gospel Lectionaries, Menaia, Synaxaria, and Euchologia. More rarely they contain musical texts (Octoechos, Horologion, Triodion).

All these manuscripts were copied by priests or monks and were dedicated to parochial churches or monasteries located both in the urban centres and the rural areas. The scant evidence seems to suggest that the island’s clergy was not dependent on the local production, since the number of manuscripts securely attributed to Cyprus that have come down to us could not have covered their needs. Without ignoring the fact that we will never be able to have a clear idea of the situation (given that many manuscripts do not bear any clear evidence of connection with Cyprus and that others may have perished or were discarded when printed exemplars started circulating), it is highly likely that manuscripts produced elsewhere were imported.

London, British Library, Add. 19993, fol. 281v (detail)
Gospel Lectionary copied in Cyprus in 1334-35. The scribal note mentions that the manuscript was dedicated to the church of Saint Georgios at the expenses of a priest named Georgios
© British Library [accessed 10/09/2021]

Regarding the organisation of the production and procurement of manuscripts destined for the Latin clergy, the evidence is so scarce and heterogeneous that even the few thoroughly Western manuscripts and those in Greek language owned by Westerners living on the island do not allow us to draw any secure conclusions. When it comes more specifically to the production of liturgical manuscripts for Catholic rituals, and even if it could be proved that the liturgical books discovered by Enlart in 1901, as well as the three fourteenth-century Breviaries that contain the Liturgy of the Holy Sepulchre and have strong connections with Cyprus – Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, MS Pal. 185‑186; Monastère de Saint Wandrille, MS P. 12; and, Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS 1076 – were produced on the island, their existence cannot support the hypothesis of a Western flourishing production.

What appears at this point as far more promising and necessary is an investigation of Cypriot‑related evidence in a wider network of possession and exchange of Western liturgical manuscripts. This could shed light on the use and consumption of manuscripts and, consequently, on a variety of dimensions and issues regarding the religious rituals in which members of the island’s Latin community were participating. Such discoveries could eventually pave the way for identification of more manuscripts with Cypriot provenance.

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