Manuscript of the Month describes one manuscript a month from various regions of the world in an easily comprehensible form. Besides being
written by scholars who work at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) and doctoral students on the ‘Manuscript Cultures’ post-graduate
research programme, these articles are also penned by other specialists from all over the world who wish to give interested readers an insight into their work.
By presenting specific examples of manuscripts, Manuscript of the Month illustrates features of particular manuscript cultures and shows how fruitful the approach can be of not only regarding manuscripts as bearers of content, but also of perceiving them in light of their social and cultural context, from the production stage to actual usage.
The following editors have worked on this column to date:
Frederike-Wiebke Daub (2012), Antonella Brita und Karsten Helmholz (special issue 10/2012), Meike Zimmermann (1–9/2013) and Max Jakob Fölster (10/2013–currently).
If you have any questions or suggestions about this column, please contact the editor by e-mail:
max.foelster [at] uni-hamburg.de
Of Travels and Travails in Blank Spaces:
The Fate of Ioan of Kratovo’s Four Gospels
This well-preserved Church Slavonic version of the Four Gospels (HACI 34) copied in 1562 has always been a very valuable object. Not only is it rich in art produced by the famous Orthodox calligrapher and illuminator Ioan of Kratovo (fl. 1526–1583), but the manuscript is thickly clad in precious metals; the binding alone, which is silver and gold-plated, weighs 14 kilogrammes. We can partially reconstruct the story of this manuscript from the various notes that are to be found in its margins. Some of these marginal accounts are written in rough handwriting; it is surprising that such a beautiful book, which once commanded sacral powers, is littered with childish scrawls. There is a particularly interesting contrast where a luxuriously illuminated page is bordered by an inscription that was added by someone called Petre, who apparently belonged to a family of boza-sellers (boza was a fermented beverage popular in the Balkans during the Ottoman period). How did the rude handwriting of a boza-seller find its place in this ceremonial book, whose handling was the privilege of the clergy?
How many languages can you count?
A multilingual manuscript from South India
Coming from the very South of India, more precisely from one of the collections held in Pondicherry, this manuscript (RE22704) is testimony to a feature characteristic of the whole subcontinent, in particular to its scholarly environments: multilingualism. Sanskrit was for centuries the language used by the intellectual elite in the area for the composition of texts, but this was soon paralleled by other local and cosmopolitan literary languages with equally sophisticated textual outcomes. How this phenomenon is reflected in the material culture is a topic yet to be fully addressed. This manuscript offers an interesting example of this. Despite its monotone layout, how many languages does it contain?
When Mars is in the sign of Capricorn...
When planning a trip or a barbecue nowadays, one would probably watch the weather forecast on TV, check the weather on the internet or see what an app says. But whoever would have thought of consulting the stars at night? As it happens, up to the 18th century, few people would have denied the connection between the constellations of the stars and the weather on Earth. This superstition, referred to as astro-meteorology, found its expression in the German Schreibkalender (‘writing calendar’), which provided prophecies on the weather for the coming year. A special copy of such a calendar can be found in the manuscript department of the Landes- und Murhardschen Bibliothek in Kassel under the signature ‘Ms. Hass. 4°57’.
A Multi-volume Manuscript of the Mongolian Buddhist Canon
The Mongolian Kanjur manuscript. Fol. 1v of the volume “pa”, Eldeb (Sūtra) section. © St Petersburg State University
The first edition of the Kanjur (the Mongolian Buddhist canon) to have survived to this day includes a total of 883 works and was prepared in manuscript form in 1628–1629 under the last khan of Mongolia, Ligdan (1588–1634). Nowadays, the only complete, 113-volume manuscript of Ligdan’s Kanjur is kept at the library of St Petersburg University in Russia. Despite its long history of research, this voluminous manuscript still leaves some questions unanswered. When and where was it written? Why is its structure so different from the blockprint edition of Mongolian Buddhist canon compiled in the 18th century?
A letter incarnate?
Held by the Hamburg State and University Library and bearing a venerable text dating from the 8th century, albeit originating more than 300 years later from the scriptorium of a monastery in Cologne, this medieval manuscript contains only one character represented by something other than a conventional letter of the alphabet. The character itself serves instead as the backdrop to a human figure and is almost entirely concealed by it. It is the first letter of the first word in the book as a whole. Who is this person and why is he gazing at the viewer so searchingly?
The Oldest Dated Sundanese Manuscript:
An Encyclopedia from West Java, Indonesia
No more than a hundred documents from the pre-Islamic manuscript culture of the Sundanese-speaking area of West Java are preserved today. The manuscript described here is written in black ink on leaves of the Gebang palm (Corypha gebanga) using the ornate type of script that is characteristic in this tradition for sacred texts, generally texts written in Old Javanese. It contains the ‘Holy Precepts for the Environment, from the Hermit Class’ (Saṅ Hyaṅ Siksa Kandaṅ Karəsian) and is one of the most important documents in Old Sundanese. It is one of only six manuscripts in this language that do not use Sundanese characters. Copied in 1518 CE, it is the only Old Sundanese manuscript that is dated internally. Its physical features shed some light on the tradition of manuscript production in pre-colonial West Java. Its contents give us some interesting insights about social life at the time of writing. What exactly makes this particular manuscript so interesting?
Creativity on the Manuscript Page:
William Wordsworth’s Diaries Notebook (DC MS 19)
Unprepossessing and tattered from use, the small, black-covered notebook which contains the earliest known version of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) great autobiographical poem The Prelude is a manuscript that speaks to the imagination. One of the prized treasures of The Wordsworth Museum at Dove Cottage, Grasmere (DC MS 19), the notebook was a cheap, ordinary, ephemeral affair; and despite being designated “Diaries”, written on a paper label on the front cover, its original intended use was to be merely practical. So why was it so significant that it was worth preserving?
Birch Bark from Gandhāra: The Discovery of Writing in Buddhist Monasteries
Detail of scroll Or. 14195.19–21 (Baums 2009, plate 5). © The British Library Board and Stefan Baums
A birch‐bark manuscript from Gandhāra gives insight into the role of writing in ancient Buddhist monasteries and into the development of Buddhism on the way from its birthplace in eastern India to Central Asia and China. The manuscript is from a literate culture that died out in the middle of the first millenium CE, to be replaced by Sanskrit language, Brāhmī script and the palm‐leaf manuscript format. Early Gandhāran literature fell into oblivion until spectacular manuscript finds in the last two decades and painstaking editorial work brought it back into the limelight of scholarship and the general public. What can we learn from this manuscript about the history of Buddhism and the introduction of writing in South Asia in the last centuries BCE and the first centuries CE?
In Praise of a Chinese Emperor: A Tangut Manuscript Fragment
The intricate script on the manuscript shown here is Tangut, one of the non-Chinese writing systems that had been invented in northern China in the medieval period. It contains a fragment of a translation of a lost Chinese text consisting of dialogues between the Tang emperor Taizong (r. 626–649) and his able ministers, attesting – along with other similar texts – to the popularity of the cult of Taizong in the Tangut kingdom. So if the Tanguts were so interested in the Chinese literary tradition, why would they try to distance themselves by creating their own script?
Why write in the abandoned Arabo-Swahili script?
More than half a century after the use of the Arabic script for writing Swahili had been either forbidden for official use (1902 in German East Africa) or marginalized by the British (1920 in Tanganyika Territory), a Swahili tafsir (commentary) of the first six suras (chapters) of the Qur’an was written in this very script.
What made Sheikh Ali Hemed Abdallah Said Abdallah Masudi Al-Buhry (1889-1957), the author and scribe of the manuscript, decide to write in a largely obsolete script at the beginning of the 1950s, at a time when few people were left who were able to read it?
A clay manuscript with cuneiform signs from very different periods
A clay tablet which was inscribed during the 7th century BCE contains a standard list of cuneiform signs in use at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE and their supposed corresponding archaic forms in use at the end of the 4th millennium BCE. Why did a scribe of the 1st millennium BCE write down such old signs?
This clay tablet is known because two fragments forming 80% of the original tablet survive. However, their inventory numbers indicate that they were discovered at two different sites.
When scribbles are the key…
At first glance, this manuscript kept in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg gives the impression that it belongs to a European manuscript tradition were it not for the signature “Orient. 274”. The cover, which is a remnant of a Latin lectionary, obviously is of West European origin. However, when flipping through the pages in fidäl, the script of the classical Ethiopic language Ge’ez, it becomes clear why this manuscript is classified as an Oriental manuscript. A scribble in Latin that may be found on the lower corner of the front leaf then catches the reader’s attention: “I belong to Johann Dieckmann of Stade. I was copied by him in the month of February 1668 in Jena from the Gerhard Library…” This statement raises many questions: Who was Johann Dieckmann? What do we know about the Gerhard Library and who was Gerhard? What is the content of this small manuscript and why is it bound this way?
A manuscript in the shape of a deck of cards?
Set No. 86 with poem by Taikenmonin no Horikawa
(The right card is read first, followed by the left card. Each card is read right to left.)
A worn-out deck of cards in a small lacquer box with coloured portraits of men and women in historical garment, above and next to them delicate traces of a calligraphic hand. Why a deck of cards made for family use in 18th century Japan has become an object of manuscriptology.
This manuscript from a private collection originally consisted of 200 from playing cards, with 198 still extant, each showing the first or second stanza of a poem of Japan’s most popular poetry anthology, the “Anthology of One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each” (Hyakunin isshu).
Stitches, patches and glosses:
traditional preservation measures of a Qur’an manuscript from Borno
This Qur’an was copied in the ancient Borno Sultanate possibly in the seventeenth but certainly not later than the eighteenth century. As typical of many other Qur’ans from Borno, northeast Nigeria, this manuscript features extensive annotations to the Arabic text of the Qur’an. The annotations are written in Old Kanembu (an exegetical language closely related to Kanuri spoken around Lake Chad) and in Arabic and they both reflect advanced study of the Qur’an by Islamic scholars and their disciples. Originating from classroom situations, the Qur’anic commentaries in both languages were not meant for copying which explains the absence of identical passages or words in all known manuscripts. The manuscript presented here is a unique exception because the entire content of the last leaf was copied and placed together with the original. What could have been the reason for this unusual insert?
Mantras, Mercury and Manuscripts
Earlier this year, a team of CSMC researchers from the humanities and the natural sciences stayed in Kathmandu for three weeks. The aim of this trip was to examine manuscripts stored there for the first time by means of state-of-the-art technical devices. Among the items examined in this way was, among others, a palm-leaf manuscript containing the esoteric Buddhist text “Commentary on the Tantra of the Deity Trisamayarāja” (Trisamayarājaṭīkā). This work is written in Sanskrit and is only extant in the form of this single manuscript. The material analysis yielded remarkable results: To begin with, it turned out that the manuscript contains two elements – i.e. arsenic (on the leaves) and mercury (in the ink), which point to the use of extraordinarily poisonous substances. Moreover, by means of multispectral imaging textual elements became legible which had been undecipherable to the naked eye. But that’s not all. In one place, we even discovered text which had been completely invisible before. Is it possible that the features mentioned above are in some way related to the fact that the manuscript contains a text which belongs to the esoteric form of Buddhism? In other words, have measures been taken by the producers of the manuscript to protect it from unauthorized use?
A manuscript sets sail
”… around noon we disembarked on the Island of Giresun and then we reached [the city of] Giresun, and when we arrived there we saw that one side of the castle had been destroyed and two houses were destroyed, too […]. Such an earthquake had never happened in this region before.” These sentences are taken from a diary-like note that was written in a blank space in this Greek manuscript. Similar notes, unskilled illustrations or writing exercises are scattered throughout the book. They show that later owners of the manuscript obviously used it not only for reading but also for other purposes. What can those unusual additions tell us about the history and use of this manuscript?
Seven in one blow –
A multilingual manuscript held in the Austrian National Library
At first glance, this manuscript written in Arabic characters does not appear to be anything out of the ordinary. It contains Islamic religious as well as poetic and superstitious texts in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, which too was written in Arabic script until the 1920s. But for understanding about one third of its folios, the command of these three major oriental languages is not sufficient: Although neither the writing system nor the scribe’s handwriting changes, it is specified that what follows are sections in Croatian, Hungarian, German, and even Latin. After a little practice one can decipher the first German words “du solt nit andere getter neben mir haben“ (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, cf. fig. 1). How was this manuscript, which outwardly seems to be coherent but still contains clearly different texts, produced and for whom was it destined?
Of Collectors and Seals
The Eventful “Life” of a Chinese Manuscript
Looking at this Chinese manuscript, the five red rectangles are immediately catching the eye. They are imprints of book collectors’ seals, which have a long tradition in China. The practice of Chinese collectors to mark their books with seals has been known since the 7th century. It is common for collectors to affix their seal next to older imprints, which in some cases results in a single manuscript (or print) carrying several dozen imprints. When examining the seal inscriptions one may identify the various owners of a book and thus reconstruct its “life”. Today this manuscript is held in the National Central Library of Taiwan. How did it get there and what do the seal imprints tell us about the former “life” of this late imperial manuscript?
The daily prayer as a sacred peep show?
The Copenhagen Hours manuscript and its special layout
A book with pages presenting cutouts through which the reader can see pictures lying below – this is an idea that would nowadays rather be associated with children’s books. What does it mean then if such “peepholes” appear in a Christian prayer book, a so-called book of hours, from the early 16th century? Is this just a visual treat, as has been assumed until now, or is there actually more behind it?
The Men of the Unseen and Unseen Men
Flicking for the first time through the pages of a small-format manuscript in Ottoman Turkish and Arabic from Hamburg State and University Library, two compass-like illustrations will catch the reader’s attention. They show where one may find a group of saints called “Men of the Unseen”. After a closer inspection of the little book, whose leaves are in apparent disorder, one may start to pore over some different unseen men. Who are those - so far unseen - who put together such a peculiar volume and what might be the reason behind this composition?
Sex & Crime in Ancient China – Facts or Fiction?
A manuscript from the 2nd century BCE provides insights into the dark side of life in ancient China: 22 excerpts from case files and historical didactic texts focusing on particular judicial officials shed light on diverse crimes such as theft and extortion, treason and fornication, murder and manslaughter and on how these offences were tried. But the manuscript raises numerous questions. Quite a few of the cases described would be well suited as plot for a movie, and sometimes a reader might ask himself: Are these records related to real legal cases, or are they mere fiction?
With the Saints Came the Manuscripts...
The origin of Christian Ethiopian manuscript culture is still unknown, but tradition has it that in the late 5th/early 6th century the Bible was translated into Ge‘ez, the then language of Ethiopia. The Nine Saints, a group of foreign monks, supposedly came to Ethiopia from different provinces of the Roman Oriental Empire, translated the Bible and spread Christianity in the northern part of the kingdom. The process of Christianization did not only lead to the translation of the Bible, but also resulted in the establishment of a manuscript culture based at monasteries. The manuscript presented here provides insight into the legend about Garimā, one of the Nine Saints, who is said to have prepared one of the first translations of the Gospels into Ge‘ez. How is the legend about Garimā’s translating the Bible reflected in this manuscript? And why is this legend about the beginning of manuscript production in Ethiopia of prestigious value for the monastery where the manuscript was produced?
In light of recent events, this special issue of Manuscript of the Month addresses a topic of current interest. The ‚Gospel of Jesus’s Wife‘, as Harvard scholar Karen L. King and some of her colleagues call the Coptic text on a papyrus fragment, has attracted much attention of the media. Whatever the final judgment of the scholarly community will be: before considering King’s propositions, numerous questions need to be answered. It is to be hoped that the study of the fragment will include advanced methods of scientific material analysis as developed by our partners from the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). The renowned Egyptologist and Coptologist Alberto Camplani has kindly agreed to publish his critical article, which appeared in Osservatore Romano on 28 September 2012, in our series edited by Antonella Brita and Karsten Helmholz.
Jesus’ wife: A papyrus adrift
“Harvard scholar's discovery suggests Jesus had a wife”. This was the heading under which Fox News reported on a presentation given on Tuesday evening, September 18, by Karen L. King during the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, only a few meters away from Vatican City. Coverage in the European and Italian media over the following days was of similar tenor, but with variations of tone and critical understanding, as well as barely pertinent references to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The news can be quickly summed up. In the course of the conference the scholar presented a fragment of a papyrus which bears sentences, in Coptic translation, from a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples about a woman, Mary, whom he describes as “his wife” (ta-hime / ta-shime, which in Coptic corresponds to “woman” or “wife”). There is nothing unusual about this for a scientific conference. However, in this case, the excessively direct link between research and journalism - that makes short shrift of the extended research periods required by more serious scientific discussion - had already occurred before the conference. The premature coverage in the American press on Tuesday was based on an interview that the Harvard academic had already given before she left for Italy.
Muḥammad b. Sulaymān al-Ǧazūlī: Dalāʾil al-ḫayrāt (Mecca and Medina)
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.arab.2673 (13v, 14r), 1857
The Dalāʾil al-ḫayrāt is one of the most important and widespread Islamic prayer collections. It is well known from Morocco, where it was composed, to as far as Southeast Asia and there are several thousand manuscripts existing worldwide which contain this work. The Munich Codex dated 1857, but also several other manuscripts and various printed editions show, after a general introduction, a two-sided illustration of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Manuscripts of this kind are the result of a longer development which started with non-illustrated manuscripts of the Dalāʾil al-ḫayrāt. But why are the illustrations showing both Mecca and Medina although Mecca is not the subject matter of the prayer collection at all?
All that glitters is not gold – or is it?
Among the treasures of the Hamburg State and University Library is a manuscript of the treatise De civitate Dei (“On the City of God”), written by the Church Father Augustine between 412 and 426. The volume was produced in c. 1150-70 in the Benedictine Abbey of St. Pantaleon in Cologne. The abbey’s scriptorium is best known for its lavish liturgical manuscripts from Ottonian times (10th c.). The gold grounds of their miniatures served not only to show off their commissioners’ wealth, glistening in the candle-light during the celebration of Mass, the gold also made tangible the presence of the divine. Compared to those earlier manuscripts, the codex containing Augustine’s treatise is relatively plain. Only its title page and two ornamental display pages have been decorated extensively, but they, too, do not contain miniatures, precious pigments, or gold leaf. Have the makers of this manuscript done without the semantic potential not only of images, but also of precious materials? Or have they, as part of a carefully orchestrated introduction to the church father’s treatise, found a way to evoke the symbolic implications of gold and costly dyes without using the actual materials in order to present the work in its proper (i.e. heavenly) light?
The Rare Case of a User-Friendly Tamil Manuscript
Tamil manuscripts of commentaries on, for example, grammatical treatises or literary texts, are presenting a challenge to the reader. As a rule, Tamil manuscripts are written in some sort of scriptio continua: there is no separation of words, and punctuation is minimal. In the case of a commentary (Tamil urai), another difficulty is the split-up of the root-text (Tamil mūlam or pāṭam) into small sections, each such section being followed by explanations. If a reader wants to look up a specific passage in the commentary, he will have difficulty in finding it quickly while browsing pages which are uniformly filled with characters. Did a Tamil scribe ever think of the usability of a commentary for future readers and provided solutions to improve it?
A Propaganda Pamphlet in Support
of a 19th-century West African Ruler
“Under the title of Fettassi, Koti edited a history of the kingdoms of Ganata, Songhoi, and Timbuctoo, from their origins until 1554 (950 of Hegira). In spite of the most persistent research, I have not been able to procure more than fragments of this important work. Everyone knows all about it, but no one possesses it; it is the phantom book of the Sudan”. With these words Félix Dubois, a journalist of the French newspaper Le Figaro, refers in1896 to a chronicle written in Timbuktu, Mali. The work, generally acknowledged as having been commenced by Maḥmūd Ka‘ti b. al-ḥājj al-Mutawakkil Ka‘ti (d. 1593) and completed by one of his nephews, known only as Ibn al-Mukhtār Gombélé (fl. 17th century), is commonly known as the Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh (“The chronicle of the seeker”). While the chronicle was edited in 1913-14 by Octave V. Houdas and Maurice Delafosse, those fragments referred to by Dubois attracted little scholarly attention. Were they just isolated sections of the Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh or not? And why did they circulate apart from the chronicle?
New York, Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
Columbia University, N-66, conductus
fragments as a pastedown
Detective work –
Hunting for music manuscripts reused in various bookbindings
What happened to medieval parchment manuscripts that were not in use any more and that took too much space in the library? In many cases, the parchment was reused in bookbindings of other manuscripts or early printed books (incunables). There, the dismembered fragments remain undiscovered until modern scholars or librarians incidentally find them. Many sources that transmit one of the most famous collections of music history, the 13th century manuscripts associated with the cathedral Notre-Dame of Paris, ended up like this. Sometimes, they are found in parent volumes far away from Paris, like this example in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New York’s Columbia University shows.
The Way to Complete Enlightenment
Anyone with an interest, scholarly or other, in Indian tantric Buddhism will almost certainly come across
one of the most influential scriptures of this form of religion, the Hevajratantra. But without detailed
commentary, the Hevajratantra can neither be understood nor interpreted.
As is the case with most tantras, a commentary is practically indispensable, even for experienced scholars, for interpreting the text correctly. Such a commentary is essential for practitioners, as otherwise tantric practice cannot be carried out properly so that enlightenment cannot be achieved. For the commentator, the achievement of enlightenment on the part of practitioners is one of the main goals. But who wrote the commentary, if not an ordinary scholar? And how does he know what the right interpretation and the correct way of performance is?
Swimming Like a Samurai –
A 100-year-old Japanese Scroll
The 13 August 1912 was a special day for Maki Toshitsugu, student of the Kobori ryū tōsuijutsu 小堀流踏水術 tradition. On that day, his teacher, Saruki Muneyasu, signed the licence Tōsui no maki. The student received it as proof of his dedicated training in the art of suijutsu 水術. The scroll he received symbolizes the second of four skill levels that can be achieved in that tradition. With each new level, the student receives a new scroll, containing parts of the Kobori ryū's secret knowledge which has been handed down from generation to generation.
A critical edition preceding the first printed edition
The Vienna Codex phil. gr. 64 represents an excellent witness of the textual transmission of Aristotle in the Renaissance era. Almost every page of this manuscript combining philosophical and scientific writings like Physics, Metaphysics, On The Heavens, On Generation and Corruption and Meteorologica reflects the extensive philological effort made to produce it. Numerous explanatory notes, diagrams and cross-referential characters, sometimes written or drawn in different colors of ink, cover the margins or have been inserted between the lines. Furthermore, a detailed analysis of the main texts reveals that for producing this new manuscript older codices have been compared and evaluated. This means that the erudite editors and scribes of this manuscript must have checked the text and amended it accordingly, as is common practice today with scholarly historical-critical editions. Thus the Vienna Aristotle Codex can be considered as a genuine critical manuscript edition, as may also be found in other manuscript cultures.
A Qur’an written over the Qur’an – why making the effort?
The manuscript of the Qur’an presented here is a very special case. It is a palimpsest, a page whose script has been completely washed off and has again been written upon. After some time the first layer reappeared and can be discerned, somewhat faded, beneath the second layer. It was probably produced not more than a few decades after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 and is considered one of the earliest textual witnesses of the Qur’an. At first glance the fact that both layers contain parts of the Qur’an, that is, parts of one and the same text, is highly astonishing. The question is: for what reason did someone wash off a text, only to overwrite it with the same text, using more or less the same style of script?