The dispersion of Greek manuscripts of Mount Athos:
Networks of codex movement from the Athonite monasteries to the Near East and the West

Zissis Melissakis

The journey of Byzantine and post-Byzantine manuscript books from the Athonite libraries to collections outside Mount Athos is a two-fold phenomenon. The most known cases are seen within the wider migration of Greek manuscripts to lands outside the Ottoman Empire, which is observed since the Renaissance era, when the West started to show a strong interest in Classical Greek texts. This continued until the mid-20th century, as posterior texts were also found under the spotlight, now also in Eastern Europe, and sometimes even beyond European boundaries.

Mount Athos had attracted, already since the 15th century, the interest of foreign scholars, noblemen or book-collectors, who within more or less organized missions, and with honest or dishonest methods, aimed at locating important manuscripts and making them part of their own collections. In such a way – as every monastery began to enlarge, as centuries passed, its manuscript material for its services and studies of the monks – Mount Athos quickly became the source of codices par excellence, around which a proper legend evolved.

Sometimes, however, the movement of Athonite manuscripts is made by simple carrying of books, usually within the Christian East, in the hands of monks travelling and using them (in the East the manuscript book was well in use together with the printed until even the 19th century). Sometimes it is achieved by sending books from Mount Athos to various recipients for various reasons, such as orders, gifts, lending, etc. Relative sources, mainly notes in the manuscripts themselves, are many, and show that a book – particularly within the framework of idiorrhythmy which dominated Athos during the years of Ottoman rule – could remain in the possession of a monk. Besides, its treatment as a relic, which was not to be removed from the monastery for any reason whatsoever, was not always the case, especially during times of financial hardship.

Westwards or Eastwards, via foreign envoyés, voyagers or simple monks, organized or not, a great number of books was taken out of Mount Athos during the period from the 15th to the 20th century. We have traced evidence concerning app. 1300 volumes, containing all sorts of texts, mainly religious, and written on Mount Athos or elsewhere. From all the exportations of books, two stand out as the most massive ones in the middle of the 17th century: by the Cypriot Catholic priest Athanasios the Rhetor, and by the Russian monk Arseniy Sukhanov, which both add up to hundreds of volumes. Other smaller ones follow with a few tens, and many other are isolated cases, usually concerning one book.

As a result of all the above, as well as a variety of natural catastrophes, the Athonite libraries lost a part of their Byzantine collections. During this entire period, however, and despite the gradual infiltration of the foreign printed book in the East, the copying of manuscripts continued, as printing was forbidden in situ, and the losses were covered by new acquisitions. In the end, the libraries not only did not become extinct, but augmented their content and remained living entities, remaining until today among the richest and most important in the world.

The movement of the books followed many routes, towards a multitude of destinations. It was often not ended immediately, but kept on for centuries – in some cases it is yet to be continued – with many in-between stations, which are not always easy to discover. The visualization of all these movements on the world map shows the great size of the phenomenon of the diaspora of Athonite manuscript wealth (there are indications about books that ended up as far as New Zealand). If, together with the geographical depiction, we take into consideration the time span of the movements, the number, and type of manuscripts included in each journey, then, through usually irrelevant between each other incidents, emerge networks of the people interested in the books, their personal interests and the carriers.

The data bank behind the present map includes material assembled by the project manager Zisis Melissakis (IHR/NHRF) through extensive research in catalogs of Greek manuscripts kept in libraries around the world. Nearly the entire body of catalogs assembled by Jean-Marie Olivier in his third edition of Répertoire des bibliothèques et des catalogues de manuscrits grecs (Turnhout 1995) was indexed, together with a great number of catalogs printed after his publication. The criterion for adding a manuscript into the database is the existence of a note or other information offering more or less proof about the book’s presence in an Athonite library, regardless of where it was written. This practically means that volumes bearing the name of an Athonite monk in short notes within have been included as having existed for some time on Mount Athos. We could not, however, claim that the result of this research has reached an end; many manuscripts do not bear witness in their pages, sometimes victims of wear or tear, of their Athonite origin.

The processing of the assembled material and the organization of the indexes of the data bank was accomplished with the assistance of Dr Georgia Foukaneli, Byzantine Archeologist and associate for the Krepis Project. Furthermore, the processing of the relative bibliography, containing the catalogs with the description of each codex and important publications for the identification of their origin, was made by the Master’s student in Greek Paleography Ms Paraskevi Sarantaridi, and the student of the Dept of History of the University of Athens Ms Konstantina Atzaka, within the framework of their internship at the NHRF.

Research directed by: Zissis Melissakis. Collaborators: Foukaneli Georgia, Konstantina Atzaka, Paraskevi Sarantaridi.