- palimpsest pal"imp*sest (p[a^]l"[i^]mp*s[e^]st), n. [L.
palimpsestus, Gr. pali`mpshstos scratched or scraped again,
pali`mpshston a palimpsest; pa`lin again + psh^n to rub, rub
away: cf. F. palimpseste.]
A parchment which has been written upon twice, the first
writing having been erased to make place for the second. The
erasures of ancient writings were usually carried on in
monasteries, to allow the production of ecclesiastical texts,
such as copies of church services and lives of the saints.
The difficulty of recovering the original text varied with
the process used to prepare the parchment for a fresh
writing; the original texts on parchments which had been
washed with lime-water and dried were easily recovered by a
chemical process, but those erased by scraping the parchment
and bleaching are difficult to interpret. Most of the
manuscripts underlying the palimpsests that have been revived
are fragmentary, but some are of great historical value. One
Syriac version of the Four Gospels was discovered in 1895 in
St. Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai by Mrs. Agnes Smith
Lewis. See also the notes below. --Longfellow.
Note: Palimpsest is the name given to ancient parchments which have been used more than once for writing purposes. The conquest of Egypt by the Saracens in the 7th century cut off from Europe the papyrus which was used to write on, and parchment could be had only in limited quantities. So through the dark ages, old manuscripts were used, after removing the first writing upon them. Sometimes the writing was washed off with a sponge, and the parchment smoothed with pumice stone; at other times the letters were scraped away with a sharp blade. Nearly all ancient manuscripts, however, were written with an ink which could not be entirely removed, and traces of a former writing could be seen beneath the new copy. In modern times there have been various efforts to restore these ancient writings by some chemical treatment. In this way have been found copies of the Republic of Cicero, the Institutes of Gaius, a part of the Epistle to the Romans, and other parts of the Old and New Testaments. The Republic of Cicero was covered by a commentary on the Psalms, written by St. Augustine. --Student's Cyclopedia, 1897. [PJC]
Note: In an auction on November 6, 1998, a 12th-century palimpsest of one of Archimedes' works was sold for 2 million dollars. The 174-page book, the oldest known copy of Archimedes' work, had been owned by a French family since the 1920s, and was sold by Christie's auction house in New York to an unidentified private American collector. The palimpsest volume includes notes and calculations for two of the Greek mathematician's most famous theories, On Floating Bodies and Method of Mechanical Theorems. A Christie's spokesperson said the buyer, who was not identified, indicated that the work would be made available to scholars. Also bidding was the Greek government, which claimed the work was stolen from a library in the former Constantinople, now Istanbul, and belonged to Greece. According to the Athens News Agency, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem took Christie's to court claiming that the manuscript was part of its library, which had been transferred to Istanbul and later to Athens for safekeeping. The court, however, ruled that Christie's had the right to auction the manuscript for a French family, which claimed to own it for the last 75 years since one of the family's ancestors bought it from Orthodox monks in Istanbul. According to the court's ruling, French law applied in the case, under which a person who holds any object for more than 30 years becomes its rightful owner. [PJC]
The Collaborative International Dictionary of English. 2000.