Anna Komnene’s Handwriting

Resumen: esta entrada, publicada con motivo del Día internacional de las mujeres en 2024, presenta de manera resumida las conclusiones de una publicación científica en la que se ofrece la identificación de la escritura de Ana Comnena en el manuscrito escurialense Ω-II-13.

Puedes leer también la noticia en Marginalia, el blog de la Biblioteca Real de Madrid, y en la página de CCHS del CSIC.

We publish this entry on the occasion of the celebration of the International Women’s Day 2024. We offer the new identification of Anna Komnene’s handwriting in the MS Escorial Ω-II-13, a codex with Homilies of John Chrysostom erroneously dated until now to the 13th century. This text presents the summary of the conclusions of a scientific publication that will appear imminently.

In the Middle Ages, women did not usually perform professional tasks; to do so implied free interaction with customers and suppliers, and such freedom of movement was certainly contrary to the principles of a patriarchal society. However, this statement, which is valid for all Christian societies, Western and Eastern, is not always justified: in precarious economies such as those of the Middle Ages, no one could prevent women from working in the production and sale of all kinds of goods to meet the needs of their families. On the other hand, when a craft activity was carried out within a familial environment, the father could pass on to his daughter the necessary knowledge to perform it.

St. Anne attended by servants, from The Birth of the Virgin (detail).
Mosaic of the Christ of Chora (Kariye Djami, Istanbul)

In more privileged social groups, some female musicians, poets or painters managed to display their art beyond the barriers of convention and reach the public. Aristocratic women were able to develop their creative and intellectual capacity thanks to the existence of monastic milieus where they enjoyed the autonomy of their rank in society and their wealth (Talbot 1983). In Byzantium, in fact, there were very influential women at court who remained so after moving to a monastery, usually founded by them; in their capacity as founders they not only administered their property and led the monastic community, but also used that space as the home of their patronage, of their support for writers and philosophers who were members of the theatron or circle linked to their patron (Jeffreys 2016).

I believe this is the better way to understand the figures of the Byzantine female writers, all of them aristocrats who found in their monasteries in Constantinople the freedom required to create: Kassia, the 9th-century noblewoman who composed both liturgical hymns and epigrams; Anna Komnene, the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), author of a history of her father’s reign, Alexiad (ed. Reinsch-Kambylis 2001); Theodora Rhaoulaina, who at the end of the 13th century wrote the Life of the brothers Theophanes and Theodoros Graptoi, two opponents of Iconoclasm in the 9th century.

If the figure of Kassia is shrouded in the mists of a very distant past, we are better informed about the lives of the other two writers, especially Anna Komnene, who is the princess that interests us here, because in the Real Monasterio of El Escorial a Greek manuscript copied by her is preserved. This is a discovery that I have been able to make recently in the framework of the DIGITESC project.

A bit of court intrigue

Anna Komnene is a porphyrogenneta princess, that is, born in the purple chamber of the imperial palace in Constantinople, as befitted the children of the emperor. In 1083, the date of her birth, Alexios I Komnenos had already been for two years on the throne of Byzantium, where he remained until his death in 1118. Anna’s mother, Eirene (1066-1123 or 1133?), was in many ways an exceptional woman, belonging to the noble Doukas lineage.

Eirene Doukaina (detail).
Mosaic of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

In the first part of her life, Anna did what was expected of her. At the age of 14, in 1097, she married the Caesar Nikephoros Bryennios (also the author of a historical work) and had two daughters and four sons with him. In those years, two female figures had acquired political influence alongside Alexios I: the emperor’s mother, Anna Dalassene, and his wife, Eirene Doukaina. The throne was to be inherited by John, Anna’s younger brother, but after the death of Alexios in 1118, mother and daughter maneuvered to have the Caesar Bryennios replace him. The plot did not succeed and both women retired to the monastery of the Theotokos Kecharitomene, which Eirene had founded in 1110-14 (Garland 1999, 198; Papaioannou 2012, 111).

Fruits of the retreat

Anna was then 35 years old and had a lot of free time ahead of her. But above all she had an alert mind and the culture she had acquired as a child (and later on as an adult), devouring one book after another secretly, to avoid being censured. Although John II, her brother, surely forced her to move away from the court and reside in the Kecharitomene from 1118 (Papaioannou 2022, 156), Anna did not take the monastic habit until her deathbed and maintained her relationship with members of the erudite Constantinopolitan elite: professors, orators, poets, bishops… writers and philosophers in short, linked to her and her mother (Jeffreys 2014; Trizio 2014).

Alexios I Komnenos Vat. gr. 666, f. 2r (detail).
© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Anna’s main activity until her death around 1153 was the composition of a historical work about her father, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. The Alexiad is one of the masterpieces that Byzantium has bequeathed us and that allows us to know in detail, among many other things, how crucial events for the history of Europe, such as the Crusades, were seen from Constantinople. The narration also brings us closer to the complex figure of Princess Anna and allows us to appreciate her fine gifts as an observer and the intelligence with which a woman could gain acceptance in such untraditional roles as that of a writer. In addition to the Alexiad, two epigrams composed by Anna have survived that prove her aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity.

Anna Komnene, copyist

The Alexiad tells us many things about Anna’s education and literary preferences, and her broad education has been analysed by various scholars drawing on both from the rhetorical pieces dedicated to Anna (ed. Browning 1962; Darrouzès 1970; Gautier 1972) and on the implicit and explicit quotations in the Alexiad (Reinsch 1998; Tziatzi-Papagianni 2004). Of the Fathers of the Church (which for a Byzantine were basically the 4th.-c. Cappadocian Fathers and John Damascene), her favourite author was John Chrysostom (347-407), whom she quotes in numerous passages without mentioning him by name (Reinsch-Kambylis 2001, vol. 2, 266; Tziatzi-Papagianni 2004, 175). That said, the Greek collection of the Library of the Monastery of El Escorial contains a manuscript of the Homilies on the Letters of St. Paul by Chrysostom copied by a woman named Anna. It is worth mentioning that this is something exceptional, since we only know four Byzantine manuscripts copied by women. One of them is already known to us, Theodora Rhaoulaina, who copied in 1282 a manuscript with the speeches of Aelius Aristides (2nd century AD), now Vat. gr. 1899 (Diktyon 68528); another is the nun Maria, who copied in the 13th century a schematologion, now in Moscow (Synodal Library, Vlad. 268 [Diktyon 43968]); the third is Eirene, daughter of a miniaturist named Theodore Hagiopetrites, who copied a heirmatologion now at St. Catherine of Sinai (ms. 1256 [Diktyon 59631]); the fourth is Anna, copyist of Chrysostom’s Homilies in the Escorial Ω-II-13.

Aelius Aristides copied by Theodora Rhaoulaina. Vat. gr. 1899, f. 109r.
© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Gregorio de Andrés dated the manuscript to the 13th century, without explaining the reason why, although most probably he did so because in those years (the catalogue is from 1967) it was a common belief that paper began to be used to copy Greek manuscripts only in the 13th century, and the manuscript Ω-II-13 is a paper codex (CCG III 166-168). On f. 61v we read the colophon with the scribe’s name, composed by a regular invocation and two dodecasyllabic poems (cf. Occurrence 23279 in the Database of Byzantine Book Epigrams):

San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, Ω-II-13, f. 61v (detail of the bottom)
© Patrimonio Nacional

+ Χ(ριστ)ὲ βοήθει μοι τῆ σῆ δούλη Ἄννη τῆ γραψάση τὸ βιβλίον τοῦτο.
Ὦ κορυφαῖε τῶν Ἀποστόλων Παῦλε, | σκέποις με τὴν δύστηνον τῆ σῆ πρεσβείᾳ.
Ὦ δέσποινα σκέπουσα τὰ βροτῶν γένη | σκέποιο κἀμὲ τῆ πολλὰ σεπ{τ}ησάσῃ | σχῶσα συνεργὸν τὸν κορυφαῖον Παῦλον, | ὁμοῦ τε Πέτρω καὶ πᾶσι τοῖς ἁγίοις.

Jesus Christ, help your servant Anna who has written this book.
O coryphaeus of
the Apostles, Paul, | protect me, wretched one, with your intercession.
O Lady, protector of the mortals’ tribes, | protect me too, with the one who honored (you) so often, | with the assistance of the coryphaeus Paul, | and also with Peter and all the saints.

Everything points to Anna being none other than Anna Komnene. Anna’s handwriting is too irregular to belong to a professional calligrapher and lacks the embellishments of chancery script. It is a functional handwriting, clear and rich in ligatures and abbreviations, typical of people who do not practice it as a profession but have a command over Greek language that prevents them from making mistakes.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, Ω-II-13, f. 59r
© Patrimonio Nacional

Her script is too peculiar to find similar hands already dated, but the dating of the copy around the second quarter of the 12th century is supported by the presence of a second copyist who replaces Anna in writing some lines (for example on f. 85r).

San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, Ω-II-13, f. 85r
© Patrimonio Nacional

This collaborator bears a close resemblance to the person (man or woman) who copied ff. 122r-128v of Par. gr. 384 (Diktyon 49957; cf. Parpulov 2020, 191, who calls this style “Typographic minuscule”). The Paris codex preserves precisely the original of the typikon or foundation document of the monastery of the Kecharitomene, signed by Eirene Doukaina herself. Even if these hands do not belong to the same person, the Escorial manuscript belongs to the same milieu.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Grec 384, ff. 128v-129r: Typikon of the Kecharitomene
© Bibliothèque nationale de France

There are other arguments that reinforce the identification of Anna Komnene’s script in the accomplishment of the costly and complex task of copying an extensive collection of texts. To copy the numerous Homilies that Chrysostom dedicated to explaining the Epistles of St. Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, Acts of the Apostles, and Ephesians was a long and costly writing exercise, probably made from various models that Anna would have no difficulty in finding in twelfth-century Constantinople. As for the verses invoking the help of St. Paul and the Virgin, as far as we know, the Escorial manuscript is their only testimony and they were certainly composed to celebrate the end of the copy of a text explaining the Epistles of St. Paul to the Romans. Anna was quite capable of writing them, but she also could ask a poet like Theodoros Prodromos to compose them.

The identification of Anna Komnene’s handwriting is a relevant finding, but perhaps not because many other manuscripts copied by her will be identified from now on. The importance of the identification of her handwriting lies in the fact that it confirms the familiarity of some Byzantine noblewomen with books and with reading and, through them, with the freedom of thought that the written page usually offers to our minds.


  • CCG III = Andrés, G. de, Catálogo de los códices griegos de la Real Biblioteca de El Escorial III. Códices 421-649, Madrid: Sucesores de Rivadeneyra, 1967 [on Internet Archive].
  • Browning, R., “An Unpublished Funeral Oration on Anna Comnena”, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 188, n. s. 8 (1962) 1-12 [reprinted in Id., Studies on History, Literature and Education, London: Variorum Reprints, 1977, VII].
  • Darrouzès, J.,  Georges et Démétrios Tornikès, Lettres et discours, Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1970.
  • Garland, L., Byzantine Empresses. Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527–1204, London-New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Gautier, P., Michel Italikos. Lettres et discours, Paris: Institut Français d’Études Byzantines, 1972.
  • Jeffreys, E., “The sebastokratorissa Irene as Patron”, in L. Theis, M. Mullett & M. Grünbart (eds.), Female Founders in Byzantium and Beyond (Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 60-61, 2011-2012), Wien-Köln-Weimar: Böhlau, 2014, pp. 177-194.
  • -, “Literary Trends in the Constantinopolitan Courts in the 1120s and 1130s”, in A. Bucossi & A. Rodríguez Suárez (eds.), John II Komnenos, Emperor of Byzantium. In the Shadow of Father and Son, London-New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 110-120.
  • Papaioannou, S., “Anna Komnene’s Will”, in D. Sullivan et al. (eds.), Byzantine Religious Culture. Studies in Honor of Alice-Mary Talbot, Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2012, pp. 99-121.
  • -, “Τῇ βασιλίσσῃ μοναχῇ κυρᾷ: An Unedited Letter to Eirene Doukaina (and an Ethopoiia in Verse by her Son for his Father)”, in L. James et al. (eds.), After the Text: Byzantine Enquiries in Honour of Margaret Mullett, Abingdon-New York: Routledge, 2022, pp. 147-166.
  • Parpulov, G., “A twelfth-century style of Greek calligraphy”, in M. Cronier & B. Mondrain (eds.), Le livre manuscrit grec : écriture, matériaux, histoire. Actes du IXe Colloque international de Paléographie grecque (Paris, 10-15 septembre 2018) (Travaux et Mémoires 24.1), Paris: Association des Amis du Centre d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, 2020, pp. 181-196.
  • Reinsch, D., “Die Zitate in der Alexias Anna Komnenes”Byzantina Symmeikta 12 (1998) 1-11.
  • Reinsch, D. R. & A. Kambylis, Annae Comnenae Alexias (CFHB XL, Series Beroli­nen­sis), Berlin-New York: De Gruyter, 2001.
  • Talbot, A.-M., “Bluestocking Nuns: Intellectual Life in the Convents of Late Byzantium”, Harvard Ukrainian Studies 7 [= Okeanos. Essays presented to I. Sevcenko] (1983), 604-618.
  • Trizio, M., “From Anna Comnena to Dante: The Byzantine Roots of Western Debates on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics”, in J. M. Ziolkowski (ed.), Dante and the Greeks, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2014, pp. 105-140.
  • Tziatzi-Papagianni, M., “Über Zitate und Anspielungen in der Alexias Anna Komnenes sowie Anklänge derselben in den späteren Geschichtsschreibern”, Byzantinische Zeitschrift 97 (2004) 167-186.

Further readings

On Anna Komnene

  • Buckler, G., Anna Comnena, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929.
  • Gouma-Peterson, Th. (ed.), Anna Komnene and her times, New York-London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Neville, L.,  Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian (Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture 1), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

On the monastery of the Theotokos Kecharitomene

  • Gautier, P., “Le typikon de la Theotokos Kecharitomene”, Revue des Études Byzantines, 43 (1985) 5-165.
  • Thomas, J. & A. Constantinides, Hero, Byzantine monastic foundation documents : a complete translation of the surviving founders’ typika and testaments, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2000, pp. 649-724.

On Female Copyists in Byzantium

  • Lampros, S. P., Ἑλληνίδες βιβλιογράφοι  αὶ κυρίαι κωδίκων κατὰ τοὺς μέσους αἰώνας καὶ ἐπὶτουρκοκρατίας (Ἐπετηρὶς τοῦ Πανεπιστημίου 1), Athenai: Τυπογραφείο Π. Δ. Σακελλαρίου 1903.
  • Schreiner, P., “Kopistinnen in Byzanz. Mit einer Anmerkung zur Schreiberin Eugenia im Par. lat. 7560”,Rivista di Studi Bizantini e neoellenici 36 (1999) 35-45 [= Schreiner, P., Byzantinische Kultur. Eine Aufsatzsammlung: II. Das Wissen (Collana Opuscula Collecta 6), N. Gaul & S. Ronchey, eds., Roma 2009, XVI].
  • Weyl Carr, A., “Woman and Monasticism in Byzantium: Introduction From an Art Historian”, Byzantinische Forschungen 9 (1985) 1-15.

OpenEdition le sugiere que cite este post de la siguiente manera:
Inmaculada Pérez Martín (7 de marzo de 2024). Anna Komnene’s Handwriting. Manuscritos griegos de El Escorial. Recuperado 14 de julio de 2024 de

Acerca de Inmaculada Pérez Martín

Inmaculada Pérez Martín is scientific researcher at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), where she has been the Director of the Institute for Languages and Cultures. She has also been the President of the Sociedad Española de Bizantinística and the Director of the Spanish Journal Estudios bizantinos. Her main lines of research are Greek Palaeography, Textual Transmission of Ancient Greek and Byzantine literature, Critical editions of Byzantine texts, and Spanish Hellenism. She is currently leading a project for the digitization and cataloguing of the Greek manuscripts of El Escorial.

5 comentarios en “Anna Komnene’s Handwriting

  1. Felicidades, Inma, por tu descubrimiento tan claramente expuesto en este excelente y enriquecedor trabajo.

  2. Congratulations on it !!!!

    Dear Inma you are great!

    This is a very outstanding contribution in Byzantinology

    We are proud of you!

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