Friday, 31 January 2014

On manuscripts, preserves and cold feet: Robert Curzon's Visits to Monasteries in the Levant

If you have not yet read it, go to as quickly as you can and buy the classic travel description Visits to Monasteries in the Levant, written in the 1840s by the English baron and gentleman traveler, Robert Curzon, and published in 1849. This book contains Curzon's tales of his visits to monastic communities in, for instance, Palestine, Egypt, Turkey and Greece in the 1830s.

Just like a handful of other European travelers at the time, this English gentleman was out looking for manuscripts to complement his book collection and he ended up buying quite a few on his way. His descriptions of these manuscripts and the monastic communities he visited may contain bits and pieces of historical information. For instance, his story about the search for manuscripts in the storerooms and cellar of the Monastery of the Syrians  in the Wadi al-Natrun, is interesting reading. The story is obviously biased (!), but some of the information about the manuscripts he claims to have seen there in fact finds some support in the actual manuscripts he brought with him back to England. One example is the codex Or.8729, today in the British Library (mentioned on this blog a week ago). This codex contains a note from Curzon saying that this is one of the volumes he found in the monastery's cellar. The exterior and layout of this codex fits the description Curzon gives of one of the manuscripts in his book.

At the same time, Curzon's descriptions are first and foremost tales of the Victorian gentleman traveler’s meeting with the oriental “other”. The book can be read as an orientalizing and deeply Eurocentric story. Curzon’s accounts of the monks' mistreatment of the manuscripts are obviously apologetic, telling his European audience why it is OK for Europeans to bring manuscripts back home from the monasteries in the Middle East. Curzon is basically telling us that the monks are incapable of taking care of them and that the manuscripts should rather be preserved by an educated an enlightened European upper class.

Still, Curzon's stories are sometimes truly hilarious and deserve to be read simply because they are entertaining. He probably intended some of the descriptions to be humorous. But in addition, his accounts of the monk’s engagement with manuscripts are unintentionally witty to us, precisely because they are fabulous examples of 19th century, European, orientalizing discourses.

Two examples:

Curzon describes his search for manuscripts in the Monastery of the Syrians:
"[In the morning I was conducted by the old abbot] into a small upper room in the great square tower, where we found several Coptic manuscripts. ... One of these was a superb manuscript of the Gospels, with commentaries by the early fathers of the church; two others were doing duty as coverings to a couple of large open pots or jars, which had contained preserves, long since evaporated. I was allowed to purchase these vellum manuscripts, as they were considered to be useless to the monks, principally, I believe, because there were no more preserves in the jars."

Or how about this description from a monastery in Greece:
"The agoumenos begged his guest to enter with the monks into the choir, where the almost continual church service was going on, ... each of the monks was standing, to save his bare legs from the damp of the marble floor, upon a great folio volume, which had been removed from the conventual library ... The traveler, on examining these ponderous tomes, found them to be of the greatest value; ... all these he was allowed to carry away in exchange for some footstools or hassocks, which he presented in their stead to the old monks; they were comfortably covered with ketche or felt, and were in many respects more convenient to the inhabitants of the monastery than the manuscripts had been, for many of their antique bindings were ornamented with bosses and nail-heads, which inconvenienced the toes of the unsophisticated congregation who stood upon them without shoes for so many hours in the day."

Now go online and buy the book, paper back or hardcover. 
If you plan to use the book for covering a jar I would recommend the paperback. 

UPDATE: Over at PaleoJudaica James R. Davila points out that Curzon's book is available online. And as Davila also says, this is excellent as long as you have enough jar lids. You find the link to the online version in his post.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Syriac manuscripts in the British Library: what happened to the bindings?

Those of you who have been working on the Syriac manuscripts in the British Library have probably observed that many of these codices have been rebound after arriving in London. The large majority of the codices that I brought to my desk during my stay there came in a fairly recent museum or letterpress binding.

I am working on Syriac codices that have been used in worship contexts. In other words, I am interested in these codices as ritual artifacts, not only as text carriers. Hence, I am curious about the ways in which the aesthetical qualities of the bindings and the overall layout of the codices mattered to those who engaged with them in those contexts.

During my stay in the British Library last year, I asked the academic librarian if it would be possible to see any codices in original binding, enquiring in particular about 13th century bindings. She kindly offered me
to have a look at two beautiful exemplars: Or. 13465 and Or. 8729. Or 13465 (dated 1475) is a particularly well kept New Testament in an original goatskin binding decorated with brass studs. Or. 8729 is a large and beautiful Gospel lectionary with an equally beautifully engraved leather binding (possibly 13th century). A note explains that this binding has been purposefully preserved. The leather covered wooden boards have been turned inside out, so that the embossed leather – formerly the exterior of the codex – now faces the textblock. I could easily understand why these two items had been kept intact. These were items intended to be admired. The bindings were obviously valuable, and in addition they were so well kept that they were still able to perform their main duty: to protect the vulnerable quires of the textblocks.

When I asked the helpful librarian if it would be possible to see an exemplar with the more typical, less expensive, Syriac binding: simple wooden boards covered partly or in whole with equally simple leather (not the ornamented or engraved type), she unfortunately could not offer me any further assistance.

If William Cureton can be trusted on this issue, however, there probably were a few of that kind in London when the Syriac manuscripts arrived there in the 1840s. In his preface to The Festal Letters of Athanasius (1848), Cureton writes the following about the arrival of a new shipment of manuscripts from the Syrian Monastery (Wadi al-Natrun, Egypt), 12 October 1847:

"The day after their arrival I went to inspect them. At the first view I could almost have imagined that the same portion of the library as had been brought, nearly five years previously, by Dr. Tattam, was again before me in the same condition as I found it when the books were first taken from the cases in which they had been packed, as if the volumes had been stripped by magic of their Russia, and clad in their original wooden binding; and the loose leaves and fragments which had cost me many a toilsome day to collect and arrange, had been again torn asunder, and scattered in almost endless confusion. I found the collection to consist of a considerable number of volumes, and a large quantity of disjointed quires and separate leaves” (Cureton, Festal Letters, xiii-xiv).

So, what happened to all these other bindings mentioned by Cureton: all those half-damaged and not-so-pretty, rather mediocre bindings that were not covering the stunningly beautiful display items, but the codices typically intended for use?

I made some further enquiries at the library and was told that the codices were rebound in the last half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, most likely by the HMSO (Her Majesty's Stationary Office) for the British Museum (Thanks are due to Martyn Jones and Cordelia Rogerson).

But what really gave me food for thought was that the library could not provide me with more information than this. Apparently no one had kept records or photographs of the process when the codices were in fact rebound. Consequently, if this is correct, we don’t know what happened to the bindings and we can’t find out what the individual volumes would have looked like.

This is quite striking and interesting in so many ways. On the one hand, it is of course honorable that a library will decide to rebind an item that is longer protected from wear and tear. If a codex is not bound properly, it will fall apart and people like me would not be allowed to study it at all. When it comes down to it, Her Majesty's Stationary Office has only done what binders have always done: when a binding is worn out you repair it. If the binding is beyond repair, you rebind the codex. In addition, as Cureton pointed out, many of these manuscripts did not arrive in London as neatly preserved codices. They arrived in the form of dismantled or unbound quires and sometimes in heaps of single leaves. I am of course grateful to the ones who made the effort to gather them, put them orderly back together and bound them so that scholars can study them.

On the other hand, the procedure of not keeping track neither of the original binding of the codices, nor of the process of rebinding them suggests to me that this was done at a time when scholars and librarians were not that interested in manuscripts as cultural and material objects. The texts contained in the codices mattered a lot, and they still do, but the qualities of the artifact per se did not: particularly not if the item was mediocre, low cost, and manufactured for general use. So unfortunately, at a time when the tide has turned and we are increasingly interested in these aspects of manuscripts, this information is no longer available.

If anyone knows more about what happened to the bindings than I do, or if you have other information than the one I got - please write to me or leave a note below and I will update this post. If anyone knows of more medieval Syriac bindings in the British Library, please let me know that as well. I am going back there next month.

Friday, 3 January 2014

A New Philology reading list

I sometimes get asked about literature on New Philology (New Medievalism/Material Philology). This is an incomplete, but hopefully helpful, reading list for those interested in New Philology and related perspectives. The list presents the literature I have read up on and actually applied in my own research, as well as some valuable input from Hugo Lundhaug. Please, feel free to improve the list by adding other helpful references in the commentary field below.

Forerunners and classics
Cerquiglini, Bernard. Éloge de la variante: Histoire critique de la philologie. Paris: Seuil, 1989
  • or read the English version: In Praise of the Variant: A Critical History of Philology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Nichols, Stephen. “Philology in a Manuscript Culture,” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 65/1 (1990):1-10.
  •    And do have a look at the other articles in 65/1 as well

Zumthor, Paul. Essai de poétique médiéval. Paris: Seuil, 1972.
  •           or go for the English translation: Toward a Medieval Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1992.

Introduction/ “In a nutshell
Driscoll, Matthew J. “Words on the Page: Thoughts on Philology, Old and New.” Pages 85-102 in Creating the Medieval Saga: Versions, Variability, and Editorial Interpretations of Old Norse Saga Literature. Edited by Judy Quinn and Emily Lethbridge. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2010.
  • Have a look also at Judy Quinn’s introduction (pp. 13-37)
  •  Look for other publications by Driscoll

Studies and discussions (selection)
Bradshaw, Paul F. “Liturgy and ‘Living Literature’.” Pages 138-53 in Liturgy in Dialogue:Essays in Memory of Ronald Jasper. Edited by Paul F. Bradshaw and Bryan Spinks.  London: SPCK, 1993.
  • Look for other publications by Bradshaw, particularly if you’re interested in liturgy

Brownlee, Marina S., Kevin Brownlee, and Stephen G. Nichols, eds. The New Medievalism. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991.
  • Check out the essays by S.G. Nichols, David F. Hult, R. Howard Bloch etc.

Busby, Keith, ed. Towards a Synthesis? Essays on the New Philology. Amsterdam: Ropopi, 1993.
Lied, Liv Ingeborg. “Nachleben and Textual Identity: Variants and Variance in the Reception History of 2 Baruch”. Pages 403-28 in Fourth Ezra and Second Baruch: Reconstruction after the Fall. Edited by Matthias Henze and Gabriele Boccaccini with the collaboration of Jason M Zurawski. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 164. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Lied, Liv Ingeborg and Hugo Lundhaug, eds. Snapshots of Evolving Traditions: Jewish and Christian Manuscript Culture, Textual Fluidity, and New Philology. Under contract with De Gruyter. Forthcoming.
  • An introduction to New Philology; studies and discussions of the applicability of the perspective to late ancient and early medieval Christian and Jewish texts.

Lundhaug, Hugo. “Case Study, Coptic: Textual Fluidity and the Nag Hammadi Texts”. Handbook of Oriental Manuscript Studies. Forthcoming.

Lundhaug, Hugo. "Nag Hammadi Codex VII and Monastic Manuscript Culture." Forthcoming in Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, Rome, September 17-22, 2012. Edited by Alberto Camplani et al.
  • And have a look at Lundhaug’s NEWCONT project here.

Trachsler, Richard. "How to do Things with Manuscripts: "From Humanist Practice to Recent Textual Criticism," Textual Cultures 1:1 (2006): 5-28.

Varvaro, Alberto. "The 'New Philology' from an Italian Perspective," Text 12 (1999): 49-58.

Philology, background and contextual; related theoretical inputs; other helpful reading
Bryant, John. The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen. Editorial Theory and Literary Criticism. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Petrucci, Armando. Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Timpanaro, Sebastiano. Genesis of Lachmann’s Method. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

  • At least, read Glenn W. Most’s “Editor’s Introduction”.

Look also for literature by
Stephen Nichols (follow him on,
John Dagenais (for instance The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture),
Andrew Taylor (Textual Situations: Three Medieval Manuscripts and Their Readers),
Daniel Hobbins (Authorship and Publicity before Print)
Odd Einar Haugen (“The Spirit of Lachmann, the Spirit of Bedier”)