On Recognizing Manuscript Ligatures

When you are collating (the process of comparing and annotating differences between a manuscript and a base text) handwritten manuscripts, one thing you have to have a plan for is how to deal with ligatures. In the world of Greek manuscripts this is especially true for minuscules, though even uncials like Sinaiticus can have ligatures.

So what are ligatures? Ligatures are strokes on the page that are combinations of letters. Often they will look similar to the individual letters, but sometimes they are completely different. Here’s a couple examples:

We will focus on the middle two (complete) lines. This is from Matt 9:5-6 (from GA 676, a 13th century manuscript), and reads as follows:

και περιπατει· ινα δε ειδητε· οτι εξουσιαν
εχει ο υιος του ανθρωπου επι της γης αφιεναι α...

In this snippet you have a few ligatures. The first is the very first mark; the one that looks like a big "S". That is και, and is a very common ligature. Also note the third marking on the second line which looks like like a nine with a line sticking out of the top right-hand corner of it (the end of the word εχει). That’s another common ligature, which is a combination of the letters epsilon and iota. You can also see this ligature again at the end of περιπατει. Or look at the εξ of εξουσιαν. That epsilon doesn’t look like an epsilon, but that is indeed a common ligature in minuscule handwriting.

So if you are reading or collating a Greek manuscript, how do you know you are looking at a ligature and not a variant? What I do is make a list of these markings on a piece of paper, including their location on the image so I can find them later if I need to. Then I move on. What will usually happen is I’ll come across another example of that same ligature. So you compare the two ligatures, and if they seem like they are representative of the same group of letters, then you know you have a ligature and not a textual variant. I then check it off the list and know I don’t need to go back and worry about this being a variant.

I’ll give you an example of how this works. Today I was collating from some photographs of codex Hierosolymitanus, a very important manuscript for determining the text of the clementine epistles in the Apostolic Fathers. I must say, this scribe is nuts. Completely. To personalize him we could give him a name like "Bob" or something Greek-ish like "Asclepiades", but I will call him "The Scribe Who Apprently Made Extra Money By Pure Obfuscation Using Ligatures Like A Crazy Person". We’ll shorten that to TSWAMEMBPOULLACP to make it easy on my server’s hard drive. TSWAMEMBPOULLACP used a number of ligatures I was not familiar with, and with a frequency I have never seen. Just on the first image of 2 Clement, which is only half a page, I noticed at least eight unique ligatures I had never seen before (I’ve only spent time on probably around thirty manuscripts, so I am sure there are lots of ligatures I am not familiar with). Luckily, most of these were repeated on the page, which made them very easy to recognize as ligatures. There were also a number of others, but I had seen them in other manuscripts. I think my favorite is TSWAMEMBPOULLACP’s ligature for ουν, which looks like an omicron with a squiggly growing out of the bottom. Because that was used more than once, I could tell that TSWAMEMBPOULLACP intended that ligature to replace the three letters ουν.

So what it comes down to is scribal intent or pattern. Can you see that pattern repeating in the same place? If you can, then you know you have a ligature. So what do you do if you have a potential ligature but can never find another use of it? Well...that’s harder. First, check to see if it looks like it may be an unintentional mark. If it is, it is not a ligature. If that doesn’t help you, pray, and maybe it will come to you :). At that point it is up to your judgment.

And yes, I do think TSWAMEMBPOULLACP should be the name of this scribe from now on in all academic literature.