(Reposted here for easy access and future convenience from the HMML Chronicle, Aug 4, 2011; see here.)
I hope the title is not too grandiose for the little petition here offered: my intent can be made clear in few words, but the practical working out of its actual implementation will naturally require more time and purposeful planning.
Manuscript study has been and will continue to be the focus of codicological learning and the preparation of text editions (however one might envision this latter task), but does it not, too, have a broader setting in the study of the languages and literatures of this or that community? From the title of this post, it is obvious that my answer to that question is in the affirmative. But is there any justification for this answer among our past masters? To state the question differently, is there plausible evidence that the expertise of our philological forebears owes anything to their thorough experience with handling manuscripts? At the very least in answer to this question we can point to the fact that some scholars widely acknowledged as masters were deeply acquainted with manuscripts. Now this does not prove that their skill and acumen is due strictly to their manuscript work, but it would be foolhardy to imagine that this activity did not at least in some way augment whatever philological ability they possessed beforehand. I need only underline the names of, to mention a few, William Cureton, William Wright, August Dillmann,[] Theodor Nöldeke,[] Anton Baumstark, Henri Hyvernat, and, more recently than these others, Michel Van Esbroeck. The last named scholar, it is said, learned to write Arabic by tracing the projected words from Sinai manuscripts in a microfilm reader, and thus provides a very practical example of using manuscripts at an early stage of linguistic education.[] .
A typical situation for students of ancient languages, I think, is for them to get what they know especially through “book learning” first of all, with more or less guidance by an instructor or professor; that is, they learn grammatical rudiments and then start in reading some texts. (I don’t enter into here the worthwhile discussion of the relative merits of a more inductive versus a more deductive method of instruction.) The rest of their formal philological education generally continues just this way: reading text after text after text, some of these meriting and getting more attention than others, depending on the student’s interests. The venue in which a student studies and the professors with whom he or she reads will largely determine how much exposure to manuscripts that student gains. While access to manuscripts—for everyone, but especially for students—formerly required more effort than is now the case, none of us really have any excuse any longer for not fully utilizing manuscripts more than was our past wont. While some manuscripts still remain very difficult or impossible to get copies of, especially in certain middle eastern collections, we can do what we can. If one is studying a particular text, it may not be feasible to look at every manuscript or even the most important ones, but especially for students, it is immensely helpful to work with manuscripts as much as possible and as early in their philological career as possible. This is the case both for unedited texts and those with editions; in fact, in the latter scenario, students may, especially with a more experienced scholar’s guidance, learn important things about textual study, with things learned both negatively from poorly done editions and positively for those more expertly executed.
In earlier days of modern scholarship, the chrestomathy was a regular tool for students making their early forays into the study of this or that language and literature. Perhaps today’s students and those of tomorrow, too, might find profit in some sort of chrestomathia manuscripta to use at the same stage of their scholarly career, but very preferably earlier rather than later. Such chrestomathiae are not an entirely new idea: witness Hyvernat’s Album de paléographie copte pour server à l’introduction paléographique des Actes des martyrs de l’Égypte (Paris, 1888), Tisserant’s Specimina Codicum Orientalium (Bonn, 1914; it is telling that this volume appeared in the series called Tabulae in usum scholarum!), and pp. 401-410 of Cheikho’s Chrestomathia Arabica (Beirut, 1897). Jan Just Witkam’s excellent paleography site, with many Arabic and Persian manuscript specimens, and one in Malay, is a recent example of something students might add to their arsenal of study; Witkam provides a few folios from each manuscript together with a complete transcription of the selection, similar to what Cheikho had done in his Chrestomathia. I hope this little plea might serve as a call for more such tools to be put together and, more importantly, to be utilized in the classroom and the study!
[] See Ernst Hammerschmidt, Äthiopistik an deutschen Universitäten (Wiesbaden, 1968), pp. 17-20.
[] C. Snouck Hurgronje, “Theodor Nöldeke, 2. März 1836 − 25. Dezember 1930,” ZDMG 85 (1931): 239-281, pp. 247-248, 254-255. (Available online here; this Nekrolog includes a fine picture of Nöldeke.)
[] Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, “Michel van Esbroeck, SJ (1934-2003), le collègue et l’ami,” Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 2 (2005): 409-440, p. 410. (Available online here.)