Review of Practice Makes Perfect: P. Cotsen-Princeton 1 and the Training of Scribes in Byzantine Egypt

Originally published in Expository Times (April 2014): 349-350.

Scott Bucking, Practice Makes Perfect: P. Cotsen-Princeton 1 and the Training of Scribes in Byzantine Egypt, (HES De Graaf, 2011), € 125, pp 266, ISBN: 0974516848

Practice Makes Perfect is a papyrological investigation of a seventh-century Coptic miniature codex (P. Cotsen-Princeton 1), a (perhaps monastic) scribal training manual with 52 extant, parchment leaves.  There are 17 distinct sections in the manuscript, ranging from a syllabary and word lists to a short passage from Romans (8:28-32) and a list of nomina sacra.  Though the primary language of the codex is Sahidic Coptic, a small amount of Greek is also present.

In the first chapter, Bucking introduces the manuscript and outlines the critical-historical framework that has shaped the methodology of papyrological analyses in general.  In Chapter 2, he then introduces “strategies for assessing the manuscript in light of its two fundamental identities as text and object” (17) and discusses the linguistic and historical settings for the codex.  Having set the contextual stage, in Chapter 3 Bucking then examines the contents and format of the manuscript through codicological and palaeographical analyses.  In the final chapter he interprets the data to draw some conclusions regarding the purpose and use of the codex in light of some of the problems intrinsic to categorizing an educational text such as P. Cotsen-Princeton 1 in late Roman period Egypt.  Following the conclusion, the reader is treated to a full-color facsimile of the manuscript, 108 plates in total.

Practice Makes Perfect provides an engaging introduction to this interesting little codex.  For a topic where photographic samples are particularly helpful to readers, this entire volume—which, incidentally, is beautifully produced—is rich with illustrations.  Throughout the book, Bucking provides numerous examples of contemporary or related manuscripts (and artifacts) with which to create a context for evaluating P. Cotsen-Princeton 1.  Since there is no information on the findspot of the manuscript, the author rightly asserts that “the only recourse is to turn to its contents and format to see if they reveal anything about its physical and social contexts” (90).  For the amount of discussion committed to context, however, the analysis of the codex is surprisingly brief at times.  In his codicological analysis, Bucking touches on physical characteristics such as the codex dimensions, the lack of binding data, a hypothetical reconstruction based on quire signatures and leaf numeration (76; a very helpful figure), and quire composition, but is silent regarding issues such as the ink, use of color, ruling, or format of hair/skin sides.   And while recognizing that bookhand Coptic palaeography can be problematic, the palaeographic analysis of the codex is surprisingly brief (70-80, 83) and only lightly addresses the mise-en-page of the manuscript.  Because the material assembled in this relatively short study is intriguing, the reader may come away from this text wishing for more analysis.  Regardless, the content of the book makes for a stimulating read.  As the world of biblical studies is becoming more interested in and conversant with codicological analysis, those interested in manuscripts of this type will find great benefit in studies such as this one.

University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Comments are closed.