Monday, June 27, 2016

Review of "Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies: An Introduction"

Alessandro Bausi (General editor), Pier Giorgio Borbone, Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, Paola Buzi, Jost Gippert, Caroline Macé, Marilena Maniaci, Zisis Melissakis, Laura E. Parodi, Witold Witakowski, eds. Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies: An Introduction. Hamburg: Tredition, 2015.

ISBN: 978-3-7323-1768-4 (Hardcover; €56.29)
ISBN: 978-3-7323-1770-7 (Paperback; €29.01)
ISBN: 978-3-7323-1769-1 (Ebook; €2.99)
Free download (see link above)

In 2015, the Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies research network published the results of international and interdisciplinary dialogues funded by the European Science Foundation between 2009-2014. The basic premise of the network is that the study of Oriental manuscript traditions is relatively poorly developed in relation to the Occidental traditions (mainly Greek and Latin). The network brought together scholars working on Arabic, Armenian, Avestan, Caucasian Albanian, Christo-Palestinian Aramaic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Slavonic, and Syriac manuscript traditions to discuss questions of methodology, terminology, and cultural contact. These scholars were divided into five subject teams (1: codicology and palaeography, 2: philology/text criticism, 3: digital approach to manuscript studies, 4: cataloguing, 5: manuscript preservation), and the chapters are divided accordingly, with only a subsidiary role for the digital humanities in the general introduction.

Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies: An Introduction is not intended simply as a proceedings volume, subject lexicon, or encyclopedia, but rather as a book to be read cover-to-cover. Coming in at around 700 pages of content-rich and dense material, that is asking a lot of any one scholar. It took me nearly a year of close, occasional reading and a lot of persistance to reach the end, but it was also extremely rewarding. Though the word "Introduction" occurs in the title, readers beware, this is not an introduction for beginners, but rather an advanced introduction for experts to broaden their cultural and theoretical horizons. While not exhaustive in its coverage of every aspect of every tradition, it devotes sections to the topics with most comparative relevance for each tradition, which is a highly effective strategy for an interdisciplinary introduction. The multiple Oriental traditions examined are particularly important for biblical scholars, since the Bible and related literature were translated into most of these languages in antiquity, and these traditions often provide important (or in some cases even the only) textual evidence for the works we study on a daily basis.

The long general introduction provides adequate background information about the project, research approaches, manuscript traditions, and legal and ethical complications, which orients the reader for the rest of the volume. The short surveys of manuscript traditions could even serve as concise substitutes for the detailed analyses in chapter 1, for those without the motivation to read the more substantial contributions.

I do, however, highly recommend reading chapter 1 on codicology in its entirety. Following a general introduction to oriental codicology, specialists in each cultural area describe the materials and tools used in their respective manuscript cultures, attested book forms, the making of the codex, the layout of the page, text structure and readability, scribes, painters, and illuminators, as well as bookbinding methods. In this discussion, Hebrew manuscript culture fares extraordinarily well, with the thorough documentation provided as part of the SfarData project. I am particularly happy with the decision to include Greek codicology among the "Oriental" traditions to be compared, because of the key role Greek manuscript culture played in many Oriental manuscript cultures. In fact, I could not help but wish that the Latin tradition had also been discussed, perhaps mainly out of sheer curiosity, but also because of interactions between Latin traditions and geographically dispersed traditions like Greek and Hebrew. The chapter was long--and sometimes tedious--to read through sequentially, but very rewarding. Indeed, as the editors state, it is probably more valuable from this perspective than as a reference work, because it is often lacking in detail and documentation. For instance, in working on a Greek codex recently, I looked back at the information on page numbering and quire signatures, which was helpful for a general overview, but did not have much in the way of detail, statistics, or examples to compare. The already imposing book would have become excessively unwieldy if the editors had chosen to incorporate so much detail, but it does limit its value as a reference work. One disappointing aspect of the book was the focus almost exclusively on codices. In the Greek and Hebrew sections, for instance, there is hardly more than a paragraph each on (sc)rolls, which are too general to be of much help.

After 200 pages of codicological minutiae, chapter 2 on paleography was a breath of fresh air. The general script types and developments for each manuscript tradition are broadly outlined and illustrated. These sections are enough to give scholars in other fields a good idea about the types of scripts extant in a manuscript culture, but will be of less value for specialists. You will not, for instance, find tables of letter forms or detailed descriptions and typologies.

Chapter 3 on textual criticism and text editing was interesting, but perhaps of less relevance to most biblical scholars. After a brief theoretical and practical introduction to textual criticism and scholarly editing, the book devotes 100 pages to selected examples of editorial projects and phenomena in the various Oriental traditions. Because of the often narrow focus of these examples, I regularly struggled to tease out their comparative relevance. Many of them dealt with problems peculiar to a particular manuscript culture, literary tradition, or genre, which I doubt will be of much interest to many other than those theoretically engaged in the discussion of what it means to edit a text. There was unfortunately little help offered for those working in biblical textual criticism, with its massive and complex documented traditions.

Chapter 4 on cataloguing seemed a bit tedious to me, but everyone working with manuscripts needs to be aware of the various approaches to cataloguing and describing manuscripts. There is also some helpful, practical guidance for those who find themselves in the unfamiliar position of cataloguing manuscripts and for those wondering what to include in a description of a manuscript. To sum up a recent trend in cataloguing, include as much information as you can in the amount of time you have, and preferably provide pictures!

Chapter 5 on conservation and preservation was a somewhat unexpected, but pleasant surprise. Working with manuscripts as often as I do, I am frequently in contact with curators and conservators, and this chapter gave me greater insight into their cold, dark world of climate-controlled vaults and storage boxes. The chapter discusses the core principles of preservation and conservation, as well as some basic points about preferred methods, dangers, and environmental conditions. The final section on digitization lays out the possibilities, practicalities, and problems of digitization, which I found both informative and balanced. Overall, this chapter gave me a much greater appreciation for the work of the conservator and the importance of preserving textual artefacts for future generations, and I would recommend it to anyone working regularly with manuscripts.

The references at the back of the book are daunting, but thankfully each section has its own references list referring to the full reference at the end of the book, which is very helpful. And the book concludes with a series of indices, which will be helpful for readers of the printed book, but largely redundant for those using the searchable PDF. Furthermore, the editors are to be commended for making the book freely available online, as well as in book form at reasonable prices. In this, and every other way, COMSt represents an up-to-date and accessible reflection of the current state of each subfield, and I highly recommend this book.

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