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The Oxford Companion to the Book


Shortages of writing material in the Middle Ages led to the reuse of parchment. The original script was washed or scrubbed off, and new text was often written at right angles to the old, traces of which would then be less obtrusive. The earliest report of a palimpsest was made in 1692 by Jean Boivin, sub-librarian of the royal collection in Paris. Many more examples were discovered and transcribed in the *Ambrosian and *Vatican Libraries by *Mai from 1814 onwards. Famous examples of Latin palimpsest texts are Gaius’ Institutes and Cicero’s De Re Publica; the most important Greek example is the *codex containing otherwise lost works of Archimedes and Hyperides. Chemicals Mai applied to facilitate transcription (see copying) have caused great damage. Multi-spectral imaging is a vast improvement on the ultra-violet lamp formerly used to enhance the legibility of the script.

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A palimpsest: part of the treatise in Syriac of Severus of Antioch against John the Grammarian written in the 8th/9th century over washed-out texts of Homer, Euclid, and, here, a 6th-century *uncial MS of St Luke’s Gospel. © The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved (BL Add. MS 17211)

N. G. Wilson


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