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On Line Library of the Church of Greece

Walter Berschin

Valuation and Knowledge of Greek 

From: Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages. From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa   Translated by Jerold C. Frakes. Revised and expanded edition. The Catholic University of America Press, http://cuapress.cua.edu/  


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3. Greek Alphabets

In the Greek alphabet, Christianity of late antiquity and the Latin Middle Ages found allusions to mysteries which the Roman alphabet lacks. All Greek letters are numerals, and five are litterae mysticae: Α-beginning; Ω-end; ΑΩ-the symbol of history, which "runs from Α to Ω and then is unrolled again from Ω to Α"; Θ-the sign of death; Τ-the figure of the cross; Υ-the Pythagorean symbol of the course of human life." The Greek alphabet is no rarity in Western libraries of the Middle Ages, not only in works in which a Greek alphabet is germane to the text anyway, such as Isidore's Etymologiae, Bede's De temporum ratione and Hrabanus' De computo, but also as an additional entry in various kinds of other manuscripts. The spectrum of possibilities extends from a simple series of the characters to an alphabetical table, such as the one in Cod. Vindob. 795 (ca. 800), with script variants  phonetic transcription, and Latin equivalents and numerical values of the Greek letters. A table such as this one certainly found use as an instructional tool, an ancestor of the Alphabeta Graeca which were still widely used in language instruction of the humanistic era.34 

A great number of uses were found for the Greek alphabet, which in part seem fanciful to us today.35The spelling of the nomina sacra "Jesus" and "Christus" as IHC and XPC, which appeared quite early among the Irish, originated in the notion of Greek as one of the "sacred languages."36 One could also impart an exotic aura to one's own name by writing it in Greek letters; this practice was fashionable especially in the tenth century.37 This method could be used to encode Latin texts in general, and the use of Greek letters was especially popular for signatures.38 The transcription in the Greek alphabet of vernacular texts, as in a Sardinian document of 1100 and Sicilian and Calabrian manuscripts of the fourteenth/ sixteenth centuries,39 was an interesting and exceptional case of this usage. A knowledge of the numerical values of the Greek letters was necessary if a scriptorium labeled its parchment quires in Greek,40 or if for instance, the author of a formulary tried his hand at the epistola formata. The rite for the dedication of a church, mentioned above, required a knowledge of the Greek alphabet (or at least a text of the alphabetic table), which was inscribed on the floor of the church to be dedicated.41  

Although majuscule script was replaced by the minuscule in the Greek East, as well as in the Latin West during the eighth and ninth centuries, Greek letters were consistently written in majuscules in the West. Minuscule alphabets, such as those which occur in individual manuscripts of the ninth to eleventh centuries in Laon, Murbach, and Flavigny, are rare;42 also quite exceptional is the use of Greek minuscules by Liudprand of Cremona. Roger Bacon's Grammar, which teaches both alphabets, already belongs to the period when new lines of communication, opened by the mendicant orders, existed between the East and the West in the Mediterranean area.  

In the Greek majuscule of the Western tradition, there are a number of peculiarities to be noted. The letters Σ and Ω, not reintroduced until the modern era, were, of course, unknown in the West during the Middle Ages; they were represented by C and Ω. In most cases Ε and Ξ also had the uncial form (Є Ξ [άλλης γραφής]). Up to this point, the Western usage corresponds to the development of the script in the East. The confusion of Θ and Τ, Η and Ε, Υ and Ι, Ω and O is typically Western: more precisely, there was a preference for the seemingly "more Greek" letters Θ, Η, Υ, and Ω at the expense of Τ, Ε, I , and O. Thus it was a widespread custom in music manuscripts of southwest Germany, for example, to estrange the nomen sacrum "Christus" with Greek letters, leading to hyper-Greek forms, such as XPΥCΘΙ (Christi). The use of ЭС for M was a very popular Grecistic spelling in the West; the former character was used in the late antique Christian schools of Syria as a siglum for ΜAΘΗΤΗC, then in early medieval England (Aldhelm) for magister; and from that time on, the letter was regarded in the West as a Greek Μ . This "Μ siglum" in Greek majuscule manuscripts is an identifying feature of the Western provenance of the script.43 The symbol ├ in medieval manuscripts, the "spiritus asper, which simply stands for h, was often misunderstood.44