From Academic Kids

A palimpsest is a manuscript page, scroll, or book that has been written on, scraped off, and used again. The word palimpsest comes from two Greek roots (palin + psEn) meaning "scraped again." Romans wrote on wax-coated tablets that could be reused, and a passing use of the rather bookish term "palimpsest" by Cicero seems to refer to this practice.

The word palimpsest also refers to a plaque which has been turned around and engraved on what was originally the back side. In planetary astronomy, ancient lunar craters whose relief has disappeared from subequent volcanic outpourings, leaving only a "ghost" of a rim are also known as palimpsests. Icy surfaces of natural satellites like Callisto and Ganymede preserve hints of their history in these rings, where the crater's relief has been effaced by creep of the icy surface ("viscous relaxation").

Because parchment and vellum, both prepared from animal hides, are more durable than paper or papyrus, most palimpsests known to modern scholars are parchment, which rose in popularity in western Europe after the 6th century A.D. Also, where papyrus was in common use, reuse of writing media was less common because papyrus was cheaper and more expendable than costly parchment. Some papyrus palimpsests still survive, and Romans referred to this custom of washing papyrus. The reed from which it was made did not grow in Italy.

With the passing of time the faint remains of the former writing that had been washed from parchment or vellum, using milk and oat bran, would reappear enough so that scholars can make out the text (which they call the scriptio inferior, the "underwriting") and decipher it. In the later Middle Ages the surface of the vellum was usually scraped away with powdered pumice, irretrievably losing the writing. Therefore the valuable palimpsests are those that were overwritten in the early Middle Ages.

Scholars of the 19th century used chemical means to read palimpsests that were sometimes very destructive, using tincture of gall or later, ammonium hydrosulfate. Modern methods using ultraviolet and photography are more subtle. Superposed photographs exposed in various light spectra, a technique called "multispectral filming," can bring up the contrast of faded ink against parchment that is too indistinct to be read by eye in normal light. Innovative Digitized images have come to aid scholars in deciphering unreadable palimpsests.

Pagan manuscripts have often only survived as palimpsests. Much of the cultural heritage of Antiquity that is commonly said to have been preserved by the Church was actually transmitted inadvertently, through palimpsests. The primary cause of the purposeful destruction of vellum manuscripts was the dearth of material. In the case of Greek manuscripts, so great was the consumption of old codices for the sake of the material, that a synodal decree of the year 691 forbade the destruction of manuscripts of the Scriptures or the church fathers, imperfect or injured volumes excepted. The decline of the vellum trade with the introduction of paper exacerbated the scarcity, which was only to be made good by recourse to material already once used.

Cultural considerations combined with such economic ones to motivate the creation of palimpsests. The demand for new texts might outstrip the availability of parchment in some centers, yet the existence of cleaned parchment that was never overwritten suggests that there was also a spiritual motivation, to sanctify pagan text by overlaying it with the word of God, somewhat as pagan sites were overlaid with Christian churches to hallow pagan ground. Or the pagan texts may have merely appeared irrelevant. Texts most susceptible to being overwritten included obsolete legal and liturgical ones, sometimes of intense interest to the historian. Early Latin translations of Scripture were rendered obsolete by Jerome's Vulgate. Texts might be in foreign languages or written in unfamiliar scripts that had become illegible in time. The codices themselves might be already damaged or incomplete. Heretical texts were dangerous to harbor: there were compelling political and religious reasons to destroy texts viewed as heresy, and to reuse the media was less wasteful than simply to burn the books.

Vast destruction of the broad quartos of the early centuries of our era took place in the period which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, but palimpsests were also created as new texts were required during the Carolingian renaissance. The most valuable Latin palimpsests are found in the codices which were remade from the early large folios in the 7th to the 9th centuries. It has been noticed that no entire work is generally found in any instance in the original text of a palimpsest, but that portions of many works have been taken to make up a single volume. An exception is the Archimedes palimpsest (see below). On the whole, Early Medieval scribes were indiscriminate in supplying themselves with material from any old volumes that happened to be at hand.

A few of the most famous palimpsests:

External links

Gore Vidal titled his memoirs Palimpsest

de:Palimpsest es:Palimpsesto fr:Palimpseste it:Palinsesto nl:Palimpsest (manuscript) ru:Палимпсест sv:Palimpsest


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