MS 378 is an undated volume of prayers to the Virgin Mary in Ethiopic, or Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. This is Balliol’s smallest manuscript book at only 2 ½ x 3 ½”, or 62 x 83mm. It is so tiny that its custom-made box is about four times the size of the book, with a recessed mount to hold it securely. One benefit of this rather larger and heavier box is that it’s easy to find on the shelf, to handle, and to keep track of during production and consultation – a box as small as the book might easily be hidden behind a larger one, or worse, dropped.
This manuscript is displayed closed in order to show its Ethiopic sewing, often known as Coptic style and distinct from later western binding techniques. The Copts, early Egyptian Christians, were the first to use the codex format, and their sewing method is still unsurpassed in simplicity and flexibility: a new Coptic binding can be opened a full 360 degrees.
The MS is in fairly good condition; the sewing is fragile and there is evidence of fairly recent repair to the attachment of the front board – what looks like a large stitch on the lower front cover – but other than some surface dirt it does not require further intervention. The paper label glued to the front cover, which MS 378 has in common with many of the others, is in the hand of EV Quinn, who began at Balliol as Assistant Librarian in 1940 and became Fellow Librarian in 1963, a post he held until 1982.
MS 378 is the only one in the collection known to have been given to the College by Benjamin Jowett from his own library, but there is no documentation in the archives about how he came to acquire it, or its previous provenance.
Although it is neither western nor medieval (as far as we know, at least), this manuscript has been included in the exhibition for two reasons: it shares many of the same conservation issues and endearing qualities as any tiny book, and it serves as a small signpost to another section of the collection that has hitherto suffered from lack of attention. As yet, many of Balliol’s 33 non-western manuscripts are still ‘closed books’: not yet accurately dated and without full descriptions of their contents, they have not been studied in detail and their research value has yet to be assessed. We hope that through recently established Balliol and Oxford contacts, and with good digital images emerging as useful tools, scholars in the relevant fields will soon be able to tell the College more about this part of the collection. Their entries in Mynors’ catalogue have been grouped together under their traditional label of ‘oriental manuscripts’ here.
MS 378, showing stitching, boards and binding
More about Ethiopic manuscripts and Ethiopic/Coptic sewing:
- Ethiopic Manuscripts Collections guide, Princeton University Library
- C Breay, ‘Getting under the covers of the St Cuthbert Gospel‘, British Library Medieval blog (2015) and images of the binding of the Cuthbert Gospel
- S Winslow, Ethiopic Manuscript Production (2011 exhibition, University of Toronto)
- Turning the Pages presentation of an illustrated Ethiopian Bible, British Library