‘If your anus twitches, then troubles will follow…’ Human bodies, divination and papyrology

Caroline Checkley-Scott showing us a possible way to stitch pages of a model-codex

Caroline Checkley-Scott showing us a possible way to stitch pages of a model of our small codex

There is a proverb in the Veneto region of Italy, which says that if your right eye has a spasm (actually it says ‘dances’) then you will have troubles in love. If the left eye does the same, you will be heartbroken. Knowing it or not, Veneto-Italians are continuing an ancient divination technique called ‘palmomancy’, the interpretation of the involuntary spasms or twitching of the human body. In the Graeco-Roman world, professional diviners and magicians gave body-based predictions of the future to their clients on the basis of manuals and centuries of experience. This field of knowledge is hard to be defined according to modern categories of religion, magic and medicine, since it often shares features with each of them.

Not many manuals of palmomancy have survived from antiquity, but we do have a fine one in Manchester: P. Ryl. I 28. The Rylands treatise occupies a very special position in the history of such literature, because it is one of the earliest, and one of very few extant copies, and because it was fabricated as a small codex, measuring about 7.5 x 6.6 cm. P. Ryl. I 28 was classified by E. Turner in his ‘group 11’ of codices (‘miniature codices’), a definition that has since been applied to early codices measuring less than 10 cm. Another intriguing feature of Ryl. I 28 is its handwriting, which can be classified as a sample of the so-called ‘Biblical majuscule’, a writing canon that developed from the second to the ninth century AD and was especially but not exclusively adopted for Biblical manuscripts. Dating to the fourth century AD, our papyrus is another proof of how misleading is to separate neatly the interests, readings and writings of people living in late antiquity.

I am conducting some research on this piece as part of my pilot project on the Rylands papyri for the John Rylands Research Institute, with the help of two of the Library conservators, Timothy Higson and Caroline Checkley-Scott, and this week also of one of my most recent MA students, Chris, who wrote a successful dissertation on this papyrus.

Among the many issues we will address, the central one concerns the fabrication of the booklet. I am convinced that the clarification of this point may help us to understand something more about the small book’s history and that of its ancient owner.

My first research question is whether we possess the entire book or if some pages went missing. As it stands, the manuscript is composed of four papyrus sheets, each bearing 4 pages (2 on each side). This became at some point the standard for the fabrication of codices: the group of four sheets (=16 pages) was called quaternio (‘set of four’) in Latin, and later became ‘quire’ in English. The four sheets were put one on top of the other, folded and then stitched together.

Detail of the thread's remains © The John Rylands Library

Detail of the thread’s remains
© The John Rylands Library

P Ryl. I 28 is exceptionally interesting because remains of the binding thread are still in place. It is here that Caroline Checkley-Scott, a renowned expert in bookbinding, is helping me to solve a problem. Palmomancy treatises follow a very schematic pattern: they describe twitches and their significance from top to bottom, i.e. from the head to the feet. Our treatise, however, starts with the abdomen, and ends with the toes. In other words, it seems to consider only the lower half of the body, which led me to suspect that at least another quire of the original codex is missing. The analysis of the threads and little holes on some pages seems to confirm this hypothesis, but more experiments and analysis are due in order to prove the point. Caroline has also noticed that on the sheet that constituted the middle of the quire there are traces of a piece of material, maybe a strip of papyrus or leather, probably inserted to protect and reinforce the binding. We have also some ideas on the rounded form of the page edges. More experiments, multispectral imaging, and some laboratory analysis will help us testing our hypotheses.

For now, I leave you on a funny note. P Ryl. I 28 was first published in 1911 by A.S. Hunt, the famous papyrologist from Oxford who formed a formidable pair with his friend and colleague B.P. Grenfell. Hunt avoided translating the sections of the Rylands treatise describing the twitching of private body parts like the one alluded to in the title of this post, which runs as follows:

‘If the anus, that some also call ‘ring’, twitches, it shows inspections, abuses, and the discovery of secret matters’.

Avoiding words linked to sexuality and other bodily functions was typical of late Victorian morality, and very far from Greek and Roman direct attitudes to the human body. However, we have been recently amused by the discovery of a naughty photograph of a beautiful naked woman stitched into a page of B.P. Grenfell’s paper archive in Oxford (reported by Viceandvirtueblog). It seems the scholar was interested in human bodies after all. So beware, scholars! Other scholars will later investigate your files and will notice inconsistencies in your behaviour: consider burning after reading…

Further reading: the best edition and discussion of Greek palmomancy treatises is available in Italian, S. Costanza, Corpus Palmomanticum Graecum, Florence 2009. On divination in antiquity I like Sarah Iles Johnston, Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Ancient Religions, Oxford 2008; on the development of the codex as a book form,  E.G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex, Philadelphia 1977; sensible warnings on the category of ‘miniature codex’ have been recently made by T.J. Kraus, ‘P.Oxy. V 840 – Amulett or Miniature Codex? Principal and Additional Remarks on Two Terms’, in Id., Ad Fontes: Original Manuscripts and Their Significance for the Studying Early Christianity, Leiden 2007.

On proverbs and names: Methuselah of P Herm. Rees 25

P Herm. Rees 25 © The John Rylands Library

P Herm. Rees 25
© The John Rylands Library

Last week at the John Rylands Library we have restored and glazed a Byzantine contract, P Herm. Rees 25. The papyrus has lost the beginning but the bottom is almost complete and the subscriptions of both the parties and the witnesses are legible. These open interesting insight into questions of literacy and writing skills in late antique Egypt. As it is often the case, the witnesses have uncertain handwritings, which look very different from the more accomplished hand that composed the body of the contract, a deed concerning the property of a house. They are barely capable to write their signature and a few other words in big capital letters penned with trembling hands.

Were they almost illiterate? Or did they have eyes problems? Were they old aged and maybe longsighted? Having problems with my eyes, I imagine how miserable life must have been for people like me in antiquity! Devices as glass-lenses were known and used, but they must have been very expensive and therefore available only to a minority. The subscription of the people involved in the deed was penned by Paul, the brother of Victor accountant of Memnoneia, in charge of the writing of the document since they ‘do not know letters’; in the case of the witnesses, however, you realise how bad were their handwriting and Greek grammar only checking the original manuscript.

'I, Methuselah (son) of John, elder, act as a witness'.  Methuselah made a number of mistakes. He wrote his father's name in the wrong case, and without one of the two 'nu' (Ιωάννης). But the abbreviated form for his profession, 'elder' (πρεσβύτερος), and the (mis)use of a diaeresis (double dots on the Ι) show that he was acquainted with document reading and writing.

‘I, Methuselah (son) of John, elder, act as a witness’.
Methuselah made a number of mistakes. He wrote his father’s name in the wrong case, and without one of the two ‘nu’ (Ιωάννης). But the abbreviated form for his profession, ‘elder’ (πρεσβύτερος), and the (mis)use of a diaeresis (double dots on the Ι) show that he was acquainted with document reading and writing.

Methuselah is the witness of P Herm. 25 I was most intrigued by.  His Biblical name has become proverbial for longevity (‘as old as Methuselah’), and in Egypt it does not seem to have been common. The few attestations so far are mainly from late antique Djeme (Greek Memnoneia, Thebes West) where also our document seems to have been drawn. Methuselah is an unskilled writer and makes some grammar mistakes, but at the same time his signature shows that he was familiar with written documents.

Wide questions on alphabetization and degrees of literacy in late antiquity arise when considering papyri like this one, of course, but I must say that my curiosity is all for Methuselah. I imagine him subscribing the deed, writing slowly and uncertainly, with his head very close to the papyrus in order to see, and I wish I knew more about him and his story. Imagine this man, who received such an unusual name: did the parents choose Methuselah for him? What a cruel name for a new born…if nomen est omen I bet Methuselah looked already old as a child! But the choice could also have been a way to wish the son a long life in a world where the infancy mortality rate was incredibly high. He identifies himself as an elder, a presbyter. What did it mean to bear this role in fifth century AD Egypt?

In a time when historians have to spend words to explain why their subject is relevant for society and what their research impact is – all self-evident to me and the general audience up to few years ago –, I plainly confess that I do ancient history and papyrology because through these subjects I am given the possibility to connect with a mass of past normal people in their everyday activities. Whatever big questions I may help answering, the joy comes from the humanity impressed in ink on that papyrus, and the attraction exercised  by that very man, Methuselah.

To me history is, among many other things, a way to overcome the finitude of human life giving a permanent voice to those whose voices were not loud enough when alive: a way to rescue Methuselah of Djeme from oblivion. Is it worth?

Further readings: B.R. Rees, Papyri from Hermopolis and other documents of the Byzantine period, London 1964 has full edition and translation of the papyrus; on questions of (il)literacy and reasons for not being able to write you may read the groundbreaking article of H. Youtie, ‘Bradeos graphon: between literacy and illiteracy’, in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 12 (1971) pp. 239-261, and the more recent T.J. Kraus, ‘(Il)literacy in non-literary papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt: further aspects of the educational ideal in literary sources and modern times’, in Mnemosyne 4a s., 53 (2000), pp. 322-342. On late antique Egypt, R.S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton 1993.