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.

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