BMCR 2022.04.11

Nikephoros Blemmydes, Epitome Physica: Untersuchungen zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung

, Nikephoros Blemmydes, Epitome Physica: Untersuchungen zur handschriftlichen Überlieferung. Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca et Byzantina – Series academica. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xxvii, 219; 16 plates. ISBN 9783110736984 $126.99.


Nikephoros Blemmydes, a monk, teacher, and scholar who lived most of his life (1197-1275) in western Asia Minor, has left us a distinctive corpus of works, including an autobiography, a speculum principis, and two complementary compendia, the Epitome logica et physica, which systematize a philosophical corpus with Aristotelian roots.

The book under review studies the manuscript tradition of the Epitome Physica (Eph), treated in a detail that justifies the separate publication of the work, although this type of study usually accompanies the edition of the text whose textual tradition is presented. Stefano Valente explains in the foreword that the edition was intended by another scholar who, however, abandoned his plan to edit it. Valente also makes no commitment to carry it out, although we hope that this will be the case. This is not the place to expand on the merits of EPh, but let us at least say that it is a systematic and clearly presented compendium of knowledge as varied as geography, astronomy, and the natural sciences, and that it influenced Blemmydes’ students and contemporary scholars such as the emperor Theodoros II Laskaris (1254-1258). The interest in an edition accompanied by translation and commentary is evident.

The transmission of the EPh, whose editio princeps appeared in Augsburg in 1605, is extremely rich: 120 Greek manuscripts and three Latin translations are known, as well as an indirect transmission as part of the Synopsis of Joseph Rakendytes, who got hold of Blemmydes’ Epitome. On the other hand, the history of the text is marked by the closeness of the oldest testimonies to the author’s own lifespan, a circumstance that is not rare in Byzantium, especially in the Palaeologan period, from which many autographs are even preserved. This proximity of apographs to autograph allows us to access a composition in progress of the compendium that involves reworkings and revisions that create different textual stages, undoubtedly in the wake of Blemmydes’ teaching.

In fact, the earliest version dates from 1237-1239, when Blemmydes taught under the emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes. Of that first version there is a single testimony, MS Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. gr. 434 (pp. 8-15, 166-170; Diktyon 67065), which Valente dates to the end of the thirteenth century and rightly proposes to locate in Constantinople. Vat. gr. 434 would be the apographon of a working copy with marginal annotations and additions by the author himself.

After 1258, when Blemmydes retired to the monastery he had founded in Emathia, near Ephesos, he took up the Epitome logica et physica and produced a definitive version characterized by a pinax or index of 32 chapters, which suggests that the author considered his work finished. The changes in the proem, the improvement of the figure of the windrose, and the inclusion of tables and diagrams are the most evident improvements in this new version (pp. 16-20).

There is not enough space in this review for a summary of the transmission of the text as it has been reconstructed by Valente in this concise yet well-organized and grounded study. I will therefore draw attention to a few features that emerge from his analysis. First, the great diffusion of the text throughout the Greek-speaking Mediterranean, from west to east:[1] Messina, Calabria, and Salento in the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries,[2] Epirus around 1300,[3] Rhodes,[4] and Cyprus (with several copies).[5] Second, that the work had a prompt diffusion, as proven not only by the date of the codices but also by the existence of a family α in the transmission (pp. 21-32) with a few passages still offering the text of the first version. The model was either the autograph Blemmydes was still working from or a copy of an unfinished version. The oldest codex of family α is Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. gr. 246, ff. 185-242 (Diktyon 66877), dated around 1300.

Of the definitive version of the EPh, a testimony of great textual quality that remained without descent is Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Laur. Plut. 87.16, copied in the 1270s (pp. 33-36, 126-127; Diktyon 16833).[6] One feature of this codex should be noted: the handiness afforded by its small size (oriental paper in-16 folded, 168 x 115/125 mm). The small format is recurrent in other EPh codices of the late thirteenth century: MSS Holkham gr. 71 (already mentioned), Princeton, University Library, MS 180 (pp. 96, 155 Diktyon 55705) and Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vindob. phil. gr. 332 (pp. 70-85, 180-181; Diktyon 71446).[7] On the other hand, the hands of Holkham gr. 71 and Princeton 180 are reminiscent of some codices copied at Mount Galesion, another monastery near Ephesos that eventually made Emathia its metochion or subsidiary monastery.[8] Given the chronological proximity to the autograph and the fact that there are no intermediate manuscripts preserved between it and the aforementioned codices, there is a basis for thinking that Blemmydes chose this small format to disseminate his work. If the Emathia books were brought to Constantinople in 1273,[9] perhaps the MSS Holkham gr. 71 and Princeton 180 were copied before that date in Blemmydes’ own circle; in any case, they would not be redundant copies of the text, because in Princeton 180 only ch. 17 ‘On the Winds’ was added on ff. 154v-155.

A remarkable closeness to the autograph must be granted to the Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb. gr. 60 (pp. 175-176; Diktyon 66527), which had progeny before and after being restored (pp. 50-55, 63-66). The terminus ante quem for this copy is provided by its own apographon, MS Oxford, Bodleian Library, Barocci 133 (pp. 145-146; Diktyon 47420),[10] that preserves on f. 112 an obituary note from 1293 and had a large progeny. The jump between Vat. Urb. gr. 60 and Barocci 133 is also generational: the former is the work of a scribe (cop. A, ff. 1-146v) of solemn and upright yet lively handwriting, combining chancellery adornments with shapes belonging to the canon of mimetic writing, in a mixture not far from Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. gr. 1113;[11] the second (with Blemmydes’ Epitomes on ff. 26-112v) is a codex dating to the very beginning of the Palaeologan period, the product of a complex working team of scribes.[12]

Valente’s book approaches the manuscript testimonies with a keen awareness of their formation and historical development, without dwelling on the superfluous task of describing the other texts they contain in detail, but using to its advantage and with subtlety the information extracted from them that is likely to illuminate the context of copying. It thus achieves a very desirable balance between too brief and excessively long descriptions that accumulate already-known and superfluous information; it also explains with great clarity the specific features of each testimony, both textual and codicological, and the relationships between them that chart the history of the text. The publication of studies such as this one, which give to a Byzantine text the importance that it deserves and adapt the methodology of textual criticism to works whose transmission does not depend on a distant archetype, is to be commended with gratitude.


[1] For paleographic reasons, it does not seem justified to locate the copy of MS. Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. gr. 256 (pp. 160-161; Diktyon 66887) nor MS Oxford, Bodleian Library, Holkham gr. 71 (pp. 37-42, 147-149; Diktyon 48139) in Thessalonike.

[2] See pp. 30-32, 76-85.

[3] Magdalen College gr. 16, pp. 149-150, Pl. 8-10; Diktyon 48709.

[4] Where MS Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, 4688 (Diktyon 40165) was located when Konstantinos Laskaris bought it (p. 129).

[5] Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Laur. Plut. 86.31, from 1314 (pp. 124-125, Diktyon 16816); Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Par. gr. 2133 (from 1332) and 2134 (pp. 152-154, Diktyon 51762 and 51763).

[6] The manuscript is the second volume of a book whose first volume was MS Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 71.19 (Diktyon 16621) containing Michael Psellos’ paraphrasis of De interpretatione andAnalytica Priora I); on the necessary reunion of the two codices, see I. Pérez Martín, “Enseignement et service impérial à l’époque paléologue”, in Le monde byzantin du XIIIe au XVe siècle: anciennes ou nouvelles formes d’impérialité, ed. M-H. Blanchet and R. Estangüi Gómez (Travaux et Mémoires 25/1), Paris 2021, pp. 1-52: 49-52.

[7] Valente (pp. 180-181) inexplicably sees Cypriot features in the handwriting; the manuscript served as a model for a Cypriot codex, MS Laur. Plut. 86.31 (see note 5), but this does not imply that it was also copied there.

[8] They are scripts with a certain childish touch, characterized by swollen forms like the Fettaugenmode but without reaching its degree of cursiveness; for example, MS Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reg. gr. 63 (Diktyon 66233), from 1259/60, for which see A. Turyn, Codices Graeci Vaticani saeculis XIII et XIV scripti annorumque notis instructi, Città del Vaticano 1964, Tab. 20; MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Par. gr. 857 (Diktyon 50444), from 1261, for which see Ch. Astruc, ed. Les manuscrits grecs datés des XIIIe et XIVe siècles conservés dans les bibliothèques publiques de France, vol. 1, XIIIe siècle, Paris 1989, nr 8, pp. 31-33, Pl. 15-16. Cf. F. Halkin, “Manuscrits Galésiotes”, Scriptorium 15.2 (1961), pp. 221-227.

[9] J.A. Munitiz, Nikephoros Blemmydes: A Partial Account. Introduction, Translation and Notes, Spicilegiumsacrum lovaniense. Études et documents 48, Leuven 1988, p. 28; cf. Valente, p. 107.

[10] The flyleaves on p. 146 that are dated to the tenth-eleventh centuries actually exhibit a somewhat mediocre mimetic script that may be contemporary with the codex.

[11] Dated by Canart to the second half of the thirteenth century, it preserves writings of the emperor Theodoros II Laskaris and its production is located at Nicaea; Plates in Ch. Krikonis, Θεοδώρου Β´ Λασκάρεως περὶ χριστιανικῆς θεολογίας λόγοι, Thessaloniki 1988, pp. 41-43.

[12] The hand that added the 1293 obituary in the lower margin of f. 112, toward the end of EPh‘s copy, is possibly the same hand that copied that page from line 5 and is therefore Valente’s copyist I, to whom I would not attribute ff. 35-39, but ff. 8v-9v. Valente’s proposed distribution of hands has problems.