manuscript  of the month

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), Andreas Janke (July 2015 - 05/2016), Wiebke Beyer (since 06/2016) and Zhenzhen LU (since 08/2016).

If you have any questions or suggestions about this section, the editors would be pleased to hear from you — email: wiebke.beyer [at] or [at]

December 2017

MS Sierra-Texupan, p. 59

Three Cultural Traditions, Two Writing Systems and One Shopping List: The Sierra-Texupan Codex

Once the dust settled after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the year 1521, a new government system was established in Mesoamerica, the region spanning present-day Mexico and Central America. That was the New Spain Viceroyalty. Culturally speaking, this change of administration was especially complicated for the Spaniards because the Aztecs had dominated over a population of seven million in more than three hundred cities in the southeastern part of the region, comprised of the Otomi, Totonac, Mixtec and other peoples. Each and every one of these peoples had languages and dialects of their own. Now Europeans, speaking Spanish, Italian and French, had to communicate with indigenous peoples through Nahuatl, the lingua franca under the Aztecs, while trying to introduce a writing system employing the Latin alphabet to local populations. How did scribes in the region deal with the challenge in communication?


November 2017

Cod. Holm S 253, fol. 12r:
Dance figures

Ballet Plots, Dance Figures, Alchemy and Fireworks

What information might you expect to find in the notebook of a dance master teaching and performing in Brussels in the second decade of the 17th century? If the material contained in the manuscript now held at the Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm (Cod. Holm S 253) is anything to go by, the answers are surprising. Outlines of ballet plots or a list of ballet titles might be expected, as well as music for current, fashionable dances, but perhaps not instructions for making fireworks, for fumigating one’s house against the plague or for making wheat grow in poor soil, remedies for toothaches and epilepsy, or a recipe for making a cosmetic preparation to improve one’s complexion. What does this collection of such diverse material reveal about the manuscript, its owner, his activities and interests?


October 2017

Manuscript yi (已) 401, Capital Library
of China

A Friend of a Lifetime:
On Yu Boya smashes his zither to mourn a dear friend, a youth book

What is friendship at its depths, and who is a true friend? When one has found the friend of a lifetime, how is one to confront the inevitable parting which comes at the end of the mortal life? These are questions which a young man from early 19th century Beijing, inspired by a tale of two friends from Chinese antiquity, came to ruminate on in a special copy he made of a book he bought, Yu Boya smashes his zither to mourn a dear friend. What was the story he read, and how did it come to touch his heart? What can the manuscript, sprinkled with his notes and commentaries, tell us today about his world as a reader?


September 2017

Cod. Guelf. 125 Gud. lat., fol. 61r.
Processed image

Figures Under the Script:
Drawings From the Early Middle Ages Revealed

Flipping through the second half of Codex Guelf. 125 Gud. lat. at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, containing the epic poem Bellum civile by the Roman poet Lucanus, a regular brown script, a Carolingian minuscule typical for the beginning of the 12th century, and beautiful decorated initials in red and green together catch the eye. On many of the pages, the two-column text is complemented by interlinear glosses. They were probably written by the monks or clerics who copied the main text. On a few pages of the manuscript, when one looks closely, faint traces of drawings peer out from behind the script, barely visible to the eye. A range of advanced techniques including photography with sided-light and UV-light, microscopic examination, and multispectral imaging have revealed that the folios had an entirely different life before the text of Lucanus was copied onto them.


August 2017

The Cosmopolitan Compendium of ʿAlī Ufuḳī

MS Turc 292, 259a/105a. © BnF

When he first took up his reed pen to notate Ottoman music, ʿAlī Ufuḳī (or Ufḳī, ‘from the horizon’) had come a long way. Born around the year 1610 as Albert (Wojciech) Bobowski in Lviv (today in the Ukraine, then in Poland), he had been captured by the Crimean Tatars and sold to the Sultan’s court around 1630. Well-educated in languages, music and medicine, and endowed with both talent and an unprejudiced curiosity, this prisoner of war became a crucial witness to Ottoman music history. Presumably on account of his musical talent, young Albert was selected from among the human booty to be trained as a musician in the rank of a household page (iç-oġlan). Confronted at once with a new musical language and a vast, orally transmitted repertoire, he turned to a device he had learned in his childhood: notation. This resulted in two large notation collections, one of which is the compendium under scrutiny here.


July 2017

Scroll Or.8210/S.3877, recto.

The Grave Side of Fengshui

Given the popularity of fengshui nowadays, it is easy for most of us to assume that its sole purpose is to help create a harmonious house, office or garden by bringing positive energy to a space. The term literally translates as ‘wind-and-water’ and has entered our common vocabulary to denote the general qualities of an environment. It was actually coined in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) to describe an important form of divination rooted in China’s long tradition of geomancy, which also dealt with the location of gravesites and the orientation of tombs. A manuscript in the British Library’s Stein Collection, produced during the late ninth and early tenth centuries, offers fascinating insights into the development of these practices.


June 2017

Go13-09 (KHA O 4), Pages 66-67.
Bima swimming towards the serpent.

Made for a Prince, Given to a Princess:
An Illustrated Javanese Manuscript
of the Dewa Ruci

In 1927, J.C.F. von Mühlen, the private secretary of Prince Hendrik, the husband of Queen Wilhelmina, donated a beautiful manuscript of the Dewa Ruci to their daughter, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, now preserved in the Royal Collections, The Hague. The manuscript was written in Yogyakarta, one of the four principalities in colonial central Java, in the Javanese year 1834, corresponding to AD 1904. According to the information given at the beginning of the manuscript, it was not made for Princess Juliana but rather for Crown-Prince Kangjeng Gusti Pangeran Adipati Anom Mengkunegara Sudibya (1879-1913), son of Hamengkubuwana VII, the Sultan of Yogyakarta. The prince unfortunately died in 1913 and thus never ascended to the throne. We do not know how this particular manuscript of the Dewa Ruci, which was and remains a popular story in Java, ended in Mr. von Mühlen’s hands, nor why he opted to give it to Princess Juliana rather than Queen Wilhelmina.


May 2017

Section of a scroll from

A Key to the Pious Economy of
Turn-of-the-Century Kashgaria

Research in the social and economic history of Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang in present-day People’s Republic of China) is limited by a paucity of organized archival sources. While there are many narrative sources in Chaghatay, the Turkic literary language that was used in the region into the 1950s, as well as Chinese-language documents produced by the regional government from the eighteenth century onwards, documents that might reflect the economy from the perspective of the Muslim majority are extremely rare. Accounts by foreigners who visited the region through the early 20th century often mention Islamic pious endowments (waqf). Waqf is a pervasive economic institution in the Islamic world, which typically consists of a parcel of land (or other property, such as a shop), the produce of which supports a pious institution or activity such as a shrine, school, soup kitchen, the copying of the Qur’an and so on. Pious endowments thus employ many people and play important roles in their local economies. Nevertheless, no systematic account of these endowments’ activities in any given part of Xinjiang is known to have existed prior to the 1930s. As it turns out, a key to unlocking the socioeconomic history of the region spent most of a century in a cupboard in northern Sweden.


April 2017

Or.8210/S.6878: Diagram and text for
‘divination of the golden turtle’

Stars and Turtles:
A Buddhist Divination Scroll

One of the great things about manuscripts is the way that they can reveal what was going on 'on the ground' in a religious tradition. When we think of Buddhist monks and nuns, meditation is the first thing that might come to mind; but they have always engaged in other activities as well. These include regular prayer and the day-to-day routine of the monastery, as well as services to the lay community outside of the monastery. To carry out these activities, some Buddhist monks and nuns became experts in medicine, divination, and magical practices to bring prosperity and ward against misfortune. Manuscripts such as the scroll that I am introducing here, show the kinds of services that they offered.


March 2017

The Silk Qur’an

The word ‘manuscript’ usually makes people in Europe and the Middle East think of writing on parchment or paper. Writing texts on silk is rare here (or even unique). The Azerbaijani artist Tünzale Memmedzade did just that, however, and wrote the whole Qur’an – the holy scripture of Islam – on black silk. Two members of CSMC asked her a number of questions they had always wanted to ask a scribe of this kind. Here is their interview with the artist, Tünzale Memmedzade.


February 2017

Diagrams of military formations, kwŏn 4, 15b-16a.

Understanding the Art of War:
The Story of a Korean Military Manual

War is largely associated with the loss of texts, yet in many instances it also leads to their emergence. Motivated by the disastrous Japanese and Manchu invasions in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Korean court strived to enhance the Royal Army through a series of reforms and innovations. These efforts included the compilation and publication of a military manual entitled Pyŏnghak chinam (The Compass of Military Learning). A recently discovered version of this book, employing two languages and three different writing systems, provides rare insights into military education, literacy and written culture in traditional Korea.


January 2017

MS U860.F46 1450, fol. 27r

Return of the Gladiators

In the middle of the twentieth century, a manuscript vanished without a trace from a library in Central Germany. It only surfaced again when it happened to be found among a deceased collector’s possessions decades later in New Haven, Connecticut. In the period between its disappearance and rediscovery, the manuscript was sold, auctioned, taken apart and put back together again. It describes mediaeval armed combat between two opponents each wearing a suit of armour and contains numerous accompanying illustrations. The carefully drawn pictures still serve their original purpose, informing interested readers about styles of combat, but they are also useful as reference material for the modern re-creation of mediaeval martial arts.


December 2016

Historiated initial depicting the Virgin
Mary and Jesus. © BnF

The Light of the World in the Form of a Manuscript

In most people’s minds – in the European cultural sphere, at least – Christmas is associated with light and shimmering radiance. In the depths of the cold season, rays of light from burning candles and festive lights pierce the darkness. For Christians, this is the symbolic expression of their God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated at Christmas time and who referred to Himself as ‘the light of the world’. This refulgence is made visible in the early-mediaeval Drogo Sacramentary.


November 2016

Batak manuscript made from tree bark.

A Gift from a Medicine Man

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German missionary doctor Johannes Winkler (1874-1958) travelled to Sumatra to work on the western coast of Lake Toba. In two decades spent on the island, he contributed considerably to the establishment of the local healthcare system, while he also took great interest in the traditions of the indigenous Batak peoples. A local datu (medicine man), Ama Batuholing Lumbangaol, who had come to the missionary himself as a patient seeking treatment, became his friend. When Winkler left Sumatra for Hamburg, the datu equipped him generously with objects, masks, calendars, and two manuscripts on the subject of magic. One will be introduced below.


October 2016

Thurston 36, fol. 3r

‘The excellence of such a noble and wise …’
– a praise from the 16th century

Scholars are obviously pleased whenever they gain important new insights in the course of their work, but if a trail of information happens to lead them off into a completely different field of investigation, that can be thrilling as well, as the example of a Qur’an manuscript with the shelf mark ‘Thurston 36’ shows. While examining this very small Qur’an manuscript kept by one of the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, two scientists from the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures in Hamburg (CSMC) noticed three pages full of symbols arranged in neat lines – obviously a script of some kind. They realised upon making this discovery that they simply had to work out the secret behind the mysterious writing. What they weren’t aware of at the time was where this would eventually lead them...


September 2016

‘Vocabulary list in six-syllable lines’
(Liuyan zazi)

‘Consider it worth a thousand cash’

One popular genre in China’s long history of written culture is the vocabulary list (zazi, literally ‘miscellaneous characters’). Developed centuries ago as a convenient way for students to learn how to read and write, they are texts containing words grouped into rhyming lines or phrases, designed to aid in memorisation. Both chanted aloud and written down, this humble literature once had a great role to play in the elementary education of ordinary people.


August 2016

Example of an Angkorian Khmer Inscription inscription
found in Lopburi (Thailand) and dated to 1025 CE.

From Stone to Paper:
A Manuscript on Ancient Inscriptions Marks the Beginning of Epigraphic Studies in Modern Siam

Thanks to spectacular epigraphic discoveries in the first half of the 19th century, members of the Siamese elite became curious to find out more about ancient writing on stone. Once the inscribed artefacts had been moved from the provincial areas to the capital, Bangkok, in order to be stored safely, Siamese experts – a very small group of traditional scholars – began the process of deciphering them to learn more about the past. A Siamese manuscript from the late 19th century documents various ancient scripts originating in India and South-east Asia as proof of this process.


July 2016

Queen Manan (Or. 718, Detail)

The Portrait of a Queen:
A story about a manuscript and its commission

In the first decade of the 19th century, which was a period of extreme decentralisation in Ethiopia, Queen Manan of Gondar commissioned a manuscript with hagiographic texts about Saint King Lālibalā containing a unique iconographic cycle. This manuscript was produced for a newly constructed church dedicated to this saint king in her capital. But why was Queen Manan, who lived 600 years later than him, so eager to promote his cult in a new place?


June 2016

The ostracon BM EA 5634

“Stung by a scorpion”
and other notes about absences from work in ancient Egypt

At first glance, it looks like a nondescript chunk of limestone, but a closer look reveals much more than that: An ancient Egyptian roster with notes on workers’ absences. Not only the days are listed on which individual workers were absent from work, but diverse reasons for their absences, too. Now, just what excuses were there in ancient Egypt for not going to work?


May 2016

Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision.

Abbess, Prophetess – and Saint?

Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) founded the convent of Rupertsberg in 1150 on a hill of the same name situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Nahe. It was there she wrote various treatises on natural history as well as three volumes recording her visionary experiences. During the first half of the 13th century, a new copy of her third visionary work, Liber divinorum operum (‘Book of Divine Works’), was created at Rupertsberg, featuring ornate gilded miniatures. How did this valuable manuscript of Hildegard’s visionary writings come to be created so long after the abbess’s death?


April 2016

A marriage (contract) to last a lifetime?

Front of the clay tablet
(excavation no. kt v/k 147).

Around 4,000 years ago in Central Anatolia, a young man called Kalua, the son of Akabšē, decided to marry Tamnanika, the daughter of Šū-Bēlum. Even at that time, people knew that marriages were not always made to last, so it was agreed that if their marriage did come to an end one day, whoever left the other person first also had to leave them a considerable amount of money. The marriage contract containing the proviso was written on a tablet of clay. This managed to survive the test of time, but the interesting question here is whether the marriage did, too.


March 2016

‘For it has already been stolen from, soiled and dishonoured’

Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms Comites Latentes 145, page 238

Love spells, black magic, exorcisms and spells of healing or protection – in the early 16th century, Joseph ben Elijah Tirshom, a Jewish scholar who lived and worked in the Ottoman Empire, assembled a significant compendium of mystical and magical texts, thereby including many instructions on so-called Practical Kabbalah. On what terms was the copyist willing to lend out his precious manuscript?


February 2016

Did It Just Explain Difficult Terms?
A Mediaeval Arabic Encyclopaedia of an Unusual Kind

University of Leipzig, ms. or. 377, f. 83r

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?


January 2016

Long Live the King (and His Manuscripts)!
A story of rituals and power from medieval Kathmandu

Wooden cover of NAK 1-1075 with scenes of liṅga adoration

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?


December 2015

An Inconspicuous Manuscript That Is a Treasure Trove of Knowledge:
Armenian Folk Medicine from the Ottoman Empire

Armenian recipes in an Argentinian school notebook

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?


November 2015

Colourful Loyalty:
An Embroidered Manuscript as an Object of Art
and a Gift to the King of Bangkok

MS no. 134, page 6

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?


October 2015

A manuscript in the shape of a sheep’s liver?

Liver model AO 19829, recto and verso

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?


September 2015

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

Mon.script.sab. 1

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?


August 2015

Serendipity in the Tigray Highlands
When a scholar kneels down to look underneath a church cupboard ...

Manuscript from ʿUra Mäsqäl
Church, UM–039, fol. 13v.

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.


July 2015

Better than a cat!
The multiple lives of a Qur’an commentary from Yemen

Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana,
Ms. Or. 78a, 1r

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?


June 2015

The Art of Protection
An Illuminated Magical Manuscript from Nepal

Cambridge University Library MS Add. 1326, 223v

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?


May 2015

Birds flying high!
A book about the spiritual journey makes a journey of its very own

Berlin State Library – Prussian
Cultural Heritage Foundation,
Ms. or. oct. 268, fol. 13r

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?


April 2015

Celestial and Terrestrial
A Notebook from the Centre of Power

Paris, BnF, Ms. lat. 2718, fol. 72r

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?


March 2015

The Manuscript That Nobody Can Read

The Rohonc Codex, fol. 40v and 41r

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?


February 2015

King Solomon and the covenant of circumcision:
A Biedermeier mohel book

Codex Levy 45, fol. 1r

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?


January 2015

A Hybrid Talismanic Manuscript:
The 340 CE "Pine Man" Wooden Tablet

The "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?


December 2014

Salvation of the soul and prudery
Censoring a 15th-century German-language manuscript

Codex germanicus 1, fol. 98v/99r

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?


November 2014

A Manuscript with an Eventful Life:
The Odyssey of Codex Florentinus

Double page from the Florentine Codex, book 1, fols. 5v–6r.

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.


October 2014

For the Love of Calligraphy:
A Letter by a Chinese Calligrapher

Letter to the Honorable Jingwen of Xizhou
© National Palace Museum (Taipei)

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?


September 2014

Writing with the Air

Light falling through the cut-out script on fol. 49v. of
manuscript A 42

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?


August 2014

Of Travels and Travails in Blank Spaces:
The Fate of Ioan of Kratovo’s Four Gospels

Ioan of Kratovo’s Four Gospels
(HACI 34, fol. 10a)

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?


July 2014

How many languages can you count?
A multilingual manuscript from South India

The manuscript RE22704 (folio 2, recto 2)

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?


June 2014

When Mars is in the sign of Capricorn...

The manuscript 4°Ms. Hass. 57

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’.


May 2014

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?


April 2014

A letter incarnate?

Cod. in scrin. 1b, Fol. 1v, Detail

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?


March 2014

The Oldest Dated Sundanese Manuscript:
An Encyclopedia from West Java, Indonesia

NLI L 630, peti 16 inside its container, with one side opened

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?


February 2014

Creativity on the Manuscript Page:
William Wordsworth’s Diaries Notebook (DC MS 19)

William Wordsworth’s Diaries Notebook
(DC MS 19, fr.86v-87r)

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?


January 2014

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?


December 2013

In Praise of a Chinese Emperor: A Tangut Manuscript Fragment

Manuscript Or.12380/2579, recto & verso.
© The British Library

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?


November 2013

Why write in the abandoned Arabo-Swahili script?

Sheikh Ali Al-Buhry’s manuscript

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?


October 2013

A clay manuscript with cuneiform signs from very different periods

Reproduction of ND 4311 + K. 8520, recto

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.


September 2013

When scribbles are the key…

Cod. Orient 274

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?


August 2013

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).


July 2013

Stitches, patches and glosses:
traditional preservation measures of a Qur’an manuscript from Borno

Fol. 2a. Second page of the front

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?


June 2013

Mantras, Mercury and Manuscripts

Multi-spectral imaging camera of CSMC at
the National Archives in Kathmandu.

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?


May 2013

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?


April 2013

Seven in one blow –
A multilingual manuscript held in the Austrian National Library

Cod. A.F.437, fol. 29v,
First Commandment in five languages
(German: second last and last line)

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?


March 2013

Of Collectors and Seals
The Eventful “Life” of a Chinese Manuscript

"Annals of the Ming family"
(Mingshi shilu) by Yang Xueke,
(fol. 1r)

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?


February 2013

The daily prayer as a sacred peep show?
The Copenhagen Hours manuscript and its special layout

The Copenhagen Hours manuscript, fol.46v-47r

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?


January 2013

The Men of the Unseen and Unseen Men

Hamburg, State and Univ. Lib., Cod. orient. 5,
fol. 233 v-234 r

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?


December 2012

Sex & Crime in Ancient China – Facts or Fiction?

Bamboo slips of the Zouyan shu

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?


November 2012

With the Saints Came the Manuscripts...

‘Adwā (Tegrāy), Dabra Madarā, Endā Abbā Garimā,
ms. C2 IV 92, fols. 12v-13r

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?


October 2012

Special Issue

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

Papyrus fragment front.
© Karen L. King, Harvard University, 2012

“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.


September 2012

Why Mecca?

Muḥammad b. Sulaymān al-Ǧazūlī: Dalāʾil al-ḫayrāt (Mecca and Medina)
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, (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?


August 2012

All that glitters is not gold – or is it?

Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek,
Cod. in scrin. 5, Fol. 2v

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?


July 2012

The Rare Case of a User-Friendly Tamil Manuscript

Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭaikkup Parimēlaḻakiyar Uraipāṭam, BNF Indien 66, title page

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?


June 2012

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?


May 2012

Conductus fragments as a pastedown
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.


April 2012

Hevajratantraṭīkā -
The Way to Complete Enlightenment

Hevajratantraṭīkā Kathmandu, Kaiser Library, MS 128 = NGMCP MS C 14/6, fol. 48r

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?


March 2012

Tosui no maki
The scroll Tōsui no maki, private collection

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.


February 2012

Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,
Cod. Phil. gr. 64, Folio 85r

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.


January 2012

Qur’an page
A palimpsest Qur’an
Dar al-Makhtutat (House of Manuscripts),
Sanaa/Yemen, 01-27.1

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?