As the readers of my blog probably know well, the main challenge of Coptic literature is the fragmentary state in which most of the manuscripts in this language are preserved. Of course, I am not referring to the late Bohairic paper manuscripts, which are generally well-preserved, but to the papyrus and parchment codices of the first millennium in general, and to the Sahidic manuscripts of the White Monastery in particular.
I know myself that a feeling of discouragement, ‘giving up’ and doubt inevitably arises in front of the mass of disparate manuscript fragments, apparently without connection with each other. This feeling must have been even more acute among the past generations of Coptologists, on whose shoulders we now stand. Here is an interesting passage in which the Danish scholar Georg Zoega (1755-1809) talks about the challenges he faced while cataloguing the Coptic manuscripts which are now in the Vatican (cf. G. Zoega, Catalogus codicum Copticorum manu scriptorum [printed post-mortem, Rome 1810]). I think Zoega is the first scholar to mention the reconstruction of the dismembered codices of the Monastery of Apa Shenoute (i.e. the White Monastery).
I extracted the fragment from a personal letter of Zoega (dated Rome, December 2, 1803) to his friend Arsène Thiébaut de Berneaud. The letter is quoted by Thiébaut in his Notice sur la vie et les écrits de Georges Zoëga (Paris 1809) (you can read the whole paper here):
Voilà l’idée principale de mon travail, voilà la marche et le plan de mon livre. Je peux dire avoir créé moi-même la collection que je consulte, car la plus grande partie en arrivant de l’Égypte n’étaient que des feuilles de parchemin détachées des livres auxquels elles appartenaient, et jetées ensemble dans une telle confusion, qu’il m’a fallu beaucoup de temps et de fatigues pour les développer, et découvrir leurs points de contact ou d’éloignement. C’est en consultant parfois l’écriture, le goût des ornements, la grandeur et la qualité du parchemin, et d’autres circonstances plus minutieuses encore, que je parvins à former de ces feuilles éparses des livres, ou du moins des fragments suivis, à les coordonner et distribuer par classes.
This is the main idea of my work, this is the direction and the plan followed in my book. I can say that I have created myself the collection that I am consulting, because most of what came from Egypt were only sheets of parchment detached from the books to which they belonged, and thrown together in such confusion, that it took me a lot of time and fatigue to elaborate upon and discover their points of contact or dissimilitude. It was only by checking sometimes the writing, the taste for ornaments, the size and quality of the parchment, and other circumstances even more painstaking, that I managed to form from these scattered leaves books, or at least consecutive fragments, to organize and distribute them into classes. (Translation A.S.)