This section of our website presents manuscripts from various parts of the world. Written in a clear and easily understandable way, these articles cover different manuscripts each month.
Many of the overviews are written by members of CSMC and PhD students from its graduate school, while others are the work of international experts sharing the results of their research.
Each manuscript of the month illustrates aspects of particular manuscript cultures by discussing specific cases. The articles show how fruitful it can be for researchers not only
to regard manuscripts as containers of content, but to see them in a social and cultural perspective as well, from the production stage to later usage.
Various editors have worked on this section so far: Frederike-Wiebke Daub (2012), Antonella Brita and Karsten Helmholz (special issue, Oct 2012), Meike Zimmermann (Jan to Sept 2013) and Max Jakob Fölster (Oct 2013 to Feb 2015), Fridericke Conrad (Mar 2015 to June 2015) and Andreas Janke (ever since July 2015).
If you have any questions or suggestions about this section, the editor would be pleased to hear from you —
email: andreas.janke [at] uni-hamburg.de
Did It Just Explain Difficult Terms?
A Mediaeval Arabic Encyclopaedia of an Unusual Kind
By the beginning of the 10th century, Islamic culture included such a large number of subjects and terms that it was hard for anyone to know them all. A scholar called Abū Ḥātim al Rāzī (who died around 933) alleviated the problem by producing an encyclopaedia entitled Kitāb al Zīna, which can be translated as ‘The Book of Adornment’. As its preface states, the name was chosen because the author felt anyone who was aware of the correct meaning of the many theological and religious terms used in conjunction with Islam would adorn themselves with this knowledge. The manuscript described here contains fragments of three texts, one of which is the oldest handwritten copy of the Kitāb al Zīna. These pages are the earliest testimony to a written work produced by the Ismailites, a Shiite group to which Abū Ḥātim al Rāzī belonged. Reading between the lines, it seems that this group believed it was the only one to be following the True Path at that time. Was this manuscript possibly intended to convert its readers to the Ismaili faith?
Long Live the King (and His Manuscripts)!
A story of rituals and power from medieval Kathmandu
Early manuscripts containing Sanskrit texts sometimes provide us with details about how they were made, but generally tell us very little about their use after copying. Although it is not always easy to gather this sort of diachronic information directly from such manuscripts, there are cases in which they can disclose more particulars about their backgrounds to anyone who looks at them closely enough. A medieval manuscript from the National Archives of Kathmandu, which shows clear traces of its being used throughout the centuries, is an intriguing case in point. What exactly does it tell us about the long life it enjoyed once it was copied?
An Inconspicuous Manuscript That Is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge:
Armenian Folk Medicine from the Ottoman Empire
Hundreds of folk remedies that were once part of Ottoman Armenian culture were written down in this standard school exercise book in 1943. The notebook contains specific knowledge about ancient methods of healing the body used by Armenians from Ayntab (now known as Gaziantep), a city in south-east Turkey close to the Syrian border (approx. 120 km from Aleppo). What is the story behind this very personal manuscript made in the Armenian diaspora?
An Embroidered Manuscript as an Object of Art
and a Gift to the King of Bangkok
Around the turn of the twentieth century, a spectacular manuscript was created by a local princess in northern Thailand, who wanted to present it to King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910) as a gift. The leporello manuscript was not written in a conventional way with ink on mulberry paper, but the letters were embroidered in varicoloured silk on black cloth. Princess Bualai, who created and donated this unique piece of work, was well known for her embroidery skills, as she frequently presented embroidered objects such as curtains, pillows and triangular backrests to the King in Bangkok, who kept them in a special chamber of the royal palace named the Bualai Chamber in honour of the princess. This embroidered manuscript is a unique case in Thai manuscript culture due to its artistic quality when compared to other works of Thai calligraphy. What exactly was the princess’s reason for making such a precious gift in the form of a manuscript?
A manuscript in the shape of a sheep’s liver?
This clay object shaped in the form of a sheep’s liver contains a text written in cuneiform on both sides. It was found in the palace of Mari, Syria, was part of a collection of similar objects and is dated to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE. What might such an item have been used for?
Was there a slave trade in southern Arabia in pre-Islamic times?
How two twin girls were sold according to a Sabaean document
written on wood
Legal documents, trade agreements and other formal records documenting daily life in ancient southern Arabia have only been known to exist for a few decades. The inhabitants of this part of the Arabian Peninsula – Semitic-speaking tribes including the Sabaeans – did not write their correspondence in ink, but carved it on small pieces of wood, cigar-sized sections of either palm-leaf ribs or other kinds of wooden material. Virtually unlimited quantities of such matter were available as ‘waste’ from plantation work and were thus the simplest and cheapest materials on which to write that we know of, with the exception of potsherds. This unique manuscript culture existed in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula from the early years of the first millennium BCE right up to the sixth century CE, directly prior to the onset of Islam. The document shown here on a piece of juniper not only demonstrates the nature of legally binding documents in southern Arabia, but is also extremely important in terms of the region’s social history. The text states that two girls – twins, in fact – were handed over into the ownership and control of members of their own family. But why their own family, of all people?
Serendipity in the Tigray Highlands
When a scholar kneels down to look underneath a church cupboard ...
Only a small number of the 200,000-odd Christian Ethiopic parchment manuscripts which are estimated to be extant in Ethiopia, Eritrea and libraries and collections abroad predate the seventeenth century, and even fewer the sixteenth and fifteenth. Those written before the fourteenth century are extremely rare. Non-biblical manuscripts with such early dating are absolute exceptions. The discovery of two folios of a non-biblical pre-thirteenth-century manuscript in 2010 underneath a cupboard in the church of ʿUra Mäsqäl in northern Tigray, close to the Eritrean border, raised a crucial question: which volume did they once belong to? The answer is but one episode in the fascinating story of what has come to be known as the Aksumite Collection.
Better than a cat!
The multiple lives of a Qur’an commentary from Yemen
Between 1035 and 1054, the last exegete of the Sunni school of Nishapur (Iran), Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Wāḥidī, wrote the Tafsīr al-Basīṭ (Large Commentary). This work was the first one to explain the Qur’an mostly by analysing its words, language and historical context. Three hundred years later, a scribe copied the text into a set of sixteen manuscripts, and seven centuries after that, the seventh volume of the work ended up on the conservation bench. In conservation, having an artefact tell its story is as important as healing its physical form. The material evidence of the present manuscript immediately shows that it must have had a very adventurous life. It was in relatively bad shape, with signs of multiple alterations, embellishments and ownership changes. What exactly happened to this manuscript over the past seven centuries that allowed it to live several different lives, just like a cat?
The Art of Protection
An Illuminated Magical Manuscript from Nepal
This substantial and carefully designed Sanskrit manuscript originates from Nepal and dates to 1719 CE. The colophon contains detailed information about a Buddhist layman who sponsored its production. Trailokara was a pious follower of the Doctrine who decided to have a huge collection of incantation texts written down in a single bundle, illustrated not only with beautiful miniature paintings of various deities but a group depiction of his own family as well. But what were the motivations of this householder from Kathmandu to engage in such an ambitious and no doubt costly project?
Birds flying high!
A book about the spiritual journey makes a journey of its very own
The spiritual journey to God by a flock of birds is the central subject of The Conference of the Birds (Manṭiq al-Ṭayr), a narrative poem written in Persian by Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār of Nishapur, in present-day Iran, around the year 1200. A transcript of this poetic tale is now part of a collection kept by the Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The colophon in this document tells us that the copy was completed in 1456 by the calligrapher ʿAtīq al-Kātib al-Tūnī. The manuscript was decorated with thirteen colour illustrations a short time later. This makes it one of the earliest manuscripts to illustrate the story of the birds, which raises the question of how the mystical search for God was translated into pictures. Clues such as notes, glosses and the style of the decoration suggest that the manuscript was worked on in a number of different locations. So how did a book about the spiritual journey come to embark on a journey all of its own?
Celestial and Terrestrial
A Notebook from the Centre of Power
Housed in the archives of the National Library of France in Paris (BN), MS Lat. 2718 presents itself as plain and unadorned. With a relatively unappealing design and seemingly unsystematic sequence of texts, the codex initially appears to be nothing spectacular. Although it may not make nearly such a grand impression as some other copies from the same period, however, this work is in fact one of the most noteworthy manuscripts of the ninth century. This is already apparent in the unusual exterior appearance of the manuscript, not to mention the heterogeneous content of the work, which makes it difficult to identify a common theme. Yet the manuscript contains the only written versions of a number of pivotal texts from the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious (814–840), the son and successor of Charlemagne. So what is the background to this remarkable codex?
The Manuscript That Nobody Can Read
The Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest has a manuscript in its archives that still puzzles researchers to this day: the Rohonc Codex (K 114). This is written in a script that no-one understands. Are cryptological methods able to reveal what this book is about and what its purpose once was?
King Solomon and the covenant of circumcision:
A Biedermeier mohel book
This small book is composed of parchment and paper folios and bound in a light-brown cover with black ornamentation and gilt edging. It is apparent even from the cover that the book was produced with great care. Once opened, apart from its handwritten character, the aesthetic feel of the lettering and visual elements becomes evident. Moses and Aaron feature on the title page with its square Hebrew script and are easily recognisable by their attributes: a staff in the case of Moses, whilst Aaron is shown wearing the cloak of the high priest with a breastplate and small bells. Many of the parchment folios are decorated with drawings and embellished with calligraphy. More than half of the small book is made of paper, however. These sheets of paper were bound in after the parchment section and have been left blank. The question is why?
A Hybrid Talismanic Manuscript:
The 340 CE "Pine Man" Wooden Tablet
Stern-faced, a mustached man stands solemnly with forearms raised in front of his chest. The posture reveals an apron-like wide belt with long tassels at about the abdomen level, on which two characters curiously read “Pine Man” (songren 松人). The writing draws the viewer’s attention towards the figure’s otherwise plain long robe. What is even more intriguing, however, is where the Pine Man appears: on a rectangular wooden tablet fully inscribed with texts in black ink. Who is he? Why is he on a wooden tablet?
Salvation of the soul and prudery
Censoring a 15th-century German-language manuscript
In the Hamburg State and University Library, there is a late mediaeval manuscript in German language consisting of a series of very varying texts, two of which were censored, with individual words being deleted. The censor was so thorough in his work that even using the most up-to-date technology, it is still not possible to read these words. What were the reasons for such interventions, and what remains hidden even today?
A Manuscript with an Eventful Life:
The Odyssey of Codex Florentinus
Codex Florentinus, or the Florentine Codex, is an impressive example of how eventful the biography of a manuscript could be in the late 16th century: over a period of less than five decades, it was commissioned by the Catholic Church in New Spain (present-day Mexico), then put on the List of Prohibited Books, shipped off to Europe where it initially went to the King of Spain’s court in Madrid, but ended up in the Pope’s possession in Rome, and finally became part of the Medici family’s “Kunst- und Wunderkammer” (cabinet of arts and curiosities) in Florence.
For the Love of Calligraphy:
A Letter by a Chinese Calligrapher
Famed for his calligraphic talent, Mi Fu 米芾 (1051–1107), a scholar-official in 11th-century China, wrote to a friend to offer some precious objects in exchange for an ancient piece of calligraphic artwork that he adored. The outcome was a short letter that still remains today. Although the letter only contains 85 Chinese characters, it is rich in cultural significance, and the style in which it was written demonstrates the writer’s marvelous artistic talent. How are content and form interconnected in such a Chinese letter, or in other words, what was the relationship between the epistolary and the calligraphic in the manuscript?
Writing with the Air
At first glance, this book looks much like any other Arabic manuscript. Upon opening the fine brown leather binding with its protective flap, a typical feature of Islamic books, the first few pages present the reader with a text written in a clear and conventional hand. Not long after opening the volume, however, a couple of lines announce a most unusual reading experience: “Read letters without ink / Rather, the air has become its ink (iqra’ ḥurūfan bi-lā midād / qad ṣāra ḥibran la-hā l-hawā إقرأ حروفاً بلا مداد / قد صار حبراً لها الهوأ)”. What exactly is this supposed to mean? What did the unsuspecting onlooker encounter when he turned the pages written with letters made of air?
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?