The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections holds extensive and unusually diverse collections of ancient through modern written and printed materials. These holdings are in the Social Sciences, Science and Technology, and Humanities Collections. Within the majority of the Humanities Collections are ancient, medieval and renaissance manuscripts. While most of the ancient manuscripts are in the Papyrology Room, the approximately 250 medieval and renaissance manuscripts are located in the Rare Book Room. The majority of the Byzantine manuscripts were purchased in the early decades of this century; several of these (e.g., Ms. 172) were acquired by F.W. Kelsey who also shaped the Kelsey Museum's collections.

The Byzantine manuscripts in the Rare Book Room are chiefly codices (books) written on parchment (vellum describes parchment of the highest quality), or more rarely paper, and bound between leather covered boards. The majority of the Rare Book Room's Byzantine manuscripts are written in Greek (Ms. 7), but there are also examples in Russian as well as in Coptic, Syriac and Armenian (Ms. 156), the languages of Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity. Medieval Christian texts written in other languages, notably Arabic and Ge'ez (ancient Ethiopic) show the continued diffusion of Byzantine manuscript traditions: scripture and scriptural commentary were translated for use in other Orthodox devotional and liturgical traditions; so too were Byzantine practices of manuscript illumination.

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