Archive for the ‘scribes’ Tag

Picturesque language in an East Syriac colophon   Leave a comment

For some brief Friday fun, here’s part of a colophon that shows a little playful cleverness from a scribe. The manuscript CCM 58 (olim Mardin 7), a New Testament manuscript dated July 2053 AG (= 1742 CE) and copied in Alqosh, has a long colophon, including the following few colorful (literally and figuratively) lines near the end, at the bottom of one page and the top of the next:

CCM 58, f. 227v

CCM 58, f. 227v

CCM_58_f228r

CCM 58, f. 228r

That is:

Lord, may the payment of the five twins that have toiled, worked, labored, and planted good seed in a white field with a reed from the forest not be refused, but may they be saved from the fire of Gehenna! Yes, and amen!

The “five twins” are the scribe’s ten fingers, the “good seed” is the writing, the “white field” is the paper, and the “reed” is the pen. At least some of this imagery is not unique to this manuscript. In any case we have a memorable way of thinking about a scribe’s labor.

A self-deprecating scribe, one among many   Leave a comment

Lately I have been cataloging a group of manuscripts from Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, that have homiletic contents, especially the mēmrē of Jacob of Serug, including some that are hitherto unpublished. One of these manuscripts is SMMJ 162, from the late 19th or early 20th century. I don’t mention it here so much for the texts the scribe penned into it, but rather for a little colophon left at the end of Jacob’s Mēmrā on Love (cf. Bedjan, vol. 1, 606-627), f. 181r:

SMMJ 162, f. 181r

SMMJ 162, f. 181r

Pray for the sinner who has written [it], a fool, lazy, slothful, deceitful, a liar, wretched, stupid, blind of understanding, with no knowledge of these things, [nor] more than these things, but pray for me for our Lord’s sake!

Almost from the beginning of my time cataloging at HMML, I have been collecting excerpts of scribal notes and colophons that I found interesting for some reason or other, one such reason being the extreme self-loathing and self-deprecation that scribes not uncommonly trumpet. The cases in which scribes go on and on with adjectives or substantives of negative sentiment can elicit almost a humorous reaction, but scribes who do this do give their readers some semantically related vocabulary examples all in one spot!

NB: If interested, see my short article in Illuminations, Spring 2012, pp. 4-6, available here, for a popular presentation on colophons.

Two scribal corrections   2 comments

While cataloging an undated, late manuscript from Saint Mark’s Monastery (Jerusalem) today, I came across this page spread, each page showing a correction in the scribe’s hand.

SMMJ 165, ff. 6v-7r

SMMJ 165, ff. 6v-7r

Homer nods and copyists sleep: scribes old and new, like typesetters and typists, have been bound to occasionally slip into error, whether by letter, word, or line. Here on the right (f. 6v), four lines from the bottom, the scribe indicates that he — the odds are that the scribe was male, but it could have been a female scribe — first erroneously copied the word tešbḥātēh by transposing B and Ḥ, so it was a mistake of a letter leading to an incorrect word. On the left (f. 7r), the scribe at first omitted (probably) two lines, and he adds them into the margin. Both mistakes are signaled by a variously oriented sign similar to ÷. Although their function is not the same, it is easy to be reminded a little of the Aristarchian or Hexaplaric signs (Field, Origenis Hexaplorum quae supersunt, vol. 1, lii-lx; Swete, Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, 69-73).

Proofreading is hardly relished by any one, whether a centuries-old scribe or today’s or tomorrow’s writer with a keyboard and screen, but seizing and adequately rectifying an error, whether by marking the error and pointing to the correction, as here, or by wholly obliterating the mistake and only giving the proper reading, at least goes a long way toward repaying the time spent doing it!

A scribal mistake and a confession   Leave a comment

In SMMJ 161, a collection of Syriac mēmrē, the scribe accidentally copied one page upside down:

SMMJ 161, ff. 94v-95r

SMMJ 161, ff. 94v-95r

He penned a note in red for his readers, admitting his fault, and noting its cause:

SMMJ 161, f. 94v

SMMJ 161, f. 94v

The Garšūnī note reads as follows transliterated into Arabic letters:  يا أخي القارئ الآن العجلة تغشى (/تغشّي) البسار (! البصر) ولا تؤاخذني بالغلطة. That is, “O brother, reader, haste covers up [my] sight, so don’t blame me for the error!”

In colophons, scribes often ask their readers to overlook the faults of their work, sometimes giving an excuse or two (e.g. distractions, cold weather, old age), but the scribe here apparently felt so bad about the upside down page, he was compelled to acknowledge the mistake on the spot and ask his reader’s indulgence.

*Thanks to Ephrem Ishac for a brief communication about this note with me.

Continuing manuscript culture   2 comments

Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 2.14.46 PMThe word “manuscript” conjures images of monks, quills, parchment, candles, and the like, that is, a mostly pre-modern setting and seemingly antiquated accoutrements, but the advent and proliferation of the printing press was hardly a death knell to writing by hand, neither in the fifteenth century, nor in those following (keyboards, physical or on-screen, notwithstanding). We don’t have to go back as far as some pre-modern period in Europe or elsewhere to find manuscripts (which, remember, simply means anything written by hand) as a notable witness to scholarly, creative, or memorial activity, and we are not talking here only of texts in old (Greek, Sanskrit, etc.) or semi-old (e.g. Middle English, Ottoman Turkish) varieties of language. Consider the “papers” (in French, English, and other contemporary languages) of relatively recent authors, such as James Joyce and others, which are very often handwritten. (Following widespread use of the typewriter, typewritten pages and sometimes even electronically produced documents are sometimes misleadingly referred to as “manuscripts”!) True, these documents are typically not copied and recopied: for that, printing was employed, and sometimes — if the assumed circulation was (or, prior to efforts by publishers such as Barney Rosset of Grove Press, had to be) small — private printing, one catalog of which is here, and which on the first page has the titles Double Acrostic Enigmas, with Poetical Descriptions selected principally from British Poets and Feigned Insanity, how most usually simulated, and how best detected! From Syriac studies we may point to Gottheil’s (age 23 at the time) little book to the right. (Thankfully, many of these privately printed books are now easily available online for a wide audience.)

“Manuscript culture” in the fullest sense refers not to a specific time, place, or language, but to the production and re-production (i.e. copying) of manuscripts. Taken thus, it is certainly most predominant in pre-modern periods, at least in Europe, but in the Middle East and parts of Africa (Ethiopia) — what about China, India, elsewhere? — copying texts has remained, at least in some small circles, a real practice. HMML has copies of very many Gǝʿǝz manuscripts from the 20th century, and likewise for manuscripts in Syriac, Arabic, and Garšūnī. Just from Mardin, and just in Syriac, HMML has copies of more than 80 manuscripts from the 20th century. The 1960s, it seems, were a relatively active period, with some large manuscripts copied then. As my colleague Wayne Torborg pointed out, someone may have been copying the words of Genesis in Syriac while, perhaps unbeknownst to them, those words in English were being recited from Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968! While these late manuscripts may often — but hardly always! — be of limited value as textual witnesses, in terms of the manuscript as a physical product and in terms of examples of scribal activity, their worth is not at all negligible, not even to mention their colophons and readers’ notes, which are eminently unique. Also, I have talked before about the probable importance of reading handwriting (i.e. manuscripts) and practicing handwriting (copying manuscripts) in language learning (see here and here), and in the second place I pointed to certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century orientalists who seemingly used manuscript copying to good effect. So at least some manuscript copying was going on also among European scholars.

CFMM 550, dated 1945: Ibn Sīnā's Al-Išārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt in Garšūnī with Bar ʿEbrāyā's Syriac tr.

CFMM 550, dated 1945: Ibn Sīnā’s Al-Išārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt in Garšūnī with Bar ʿEbrāyā’s Syriac tr.

MGMT 81, dated 1968: Dionysios bar Ṣalibi's Commentaries on the Old Testament

MGMT 81, dated 1968: Dionysios bar Ṣalibi’s Commentaries on the Old Testament

Within this context and this definition of “manuscript culture”, I would like to highlight a very recently copied manuscript from the latest batch of files from Saint Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem. I had seen manuscripts with notes written in Syriac dated as late as 2008, and a very interesting manuscript that I doubt I shall ever forget is a collection of three saints’ lives copied into a 1993 calendar book (ZFRN 385), but based on a manuscript on parchment from 1496 AG (= 1184/5 CE)!

ZFRN 385, here the end of the Story of Mar Awgen.

ZFRN 385, here the end of the Story of Mar Awgen.

As unique as that manuscript is, the great lateness of the Jerusalem manuscript (SMMJ 475) is also startlingly memorable. It has the date in three places, all from the present year, the last one being July 26, 2012! Copied by the monk, Shemun Can, at Saint Mark’s, it is a collection of Syriac poetry, mostly by later authors (but one by Jacob of Serugh and one by Ephrem), along with a few hymns in Garšūnī and the Lawij (in Kurdish with Syriac letters) of Basilios Šemʿon al-Ṭūrānī. The manuscript’s colophons are all in a style not unlike those written centuries before, and they, together with the manuscript as a whole, a physical, textual object, remind us well that manuscript culture, at least in some quarters, is alive and well.

SMMJ 475, p. 34, the beginning of Yaʿqob ʿUrdnsāyā, "On Himself".

SMMJ 475, p. 34, the beginning of Yaʿqob ʿUrdnsāyā, “On Himself”.

A (slightly) hidden scribal name   3 comments

One of the unendingly amusing parts of colophons (at least those composed by Christians) are the almost grandiloquent means with which scribes tout their now trumpeted humility: gloomy and unfavorable adjective piled upon gloomy and unfavorable adjective, lexical competition with other monastic scribes to find the most picturesque expression for assumed wickedness, &c. A nearly ubiquitous topos goes something like, “…written by the hands of the lowliest of God’s servants, whose name is not worthy to be mentioned…” The scribe nevertheless in most cases goes on to mention his name “on account of the prayers of the brothers”, that is, so that his fellow monk-readers will be able to pray for him (and his family) by name. The scribe of Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin) no. 496 (olim Dayr Al-Zaʿfarān 142), an 18th century copy of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s grammatical work called The Book of Splendors (Ktābā d-ṣemḥē), was rather more inventive. In the course of the colophon, written in the dodecasyllabic meter of Jacob of Sarug and with almost every line concluding with the Syriac adverbial ending -āʾit, he says (text in the image below),

If you want to know my name, our brother, read and observe in enlightenment with your great intelligence: Pray to the Lord to grant sincerely in his mercy a good reward to the one who prays lovingly, on whom may the Lord’s mercy be continually.

CFMM 496, p 450

It doesn’t take “great intelligence” to note the rubricated letters in the scribe’s request for prayer. Taking these together, we have the name Ṣlibā, several other examples of which can be found in Wright’s “General Index” to his catalog of the Syriac manuscripts then at the British Museum (p. 1319). While we know no more of his name than Ṣlibā, and that he copied the book in 2026 AG,* we will probably not be mistaken to imagine his having smiled at this playful finishing of his work.

* Also given are 1717 AD and 1127 AH, but these don’t match the AG year exactly.

The 16th-century scribe ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz from Mardin   1 comment

CFMM 466, f. 296v

Church of the Forty Martyrs (Mardin) ms 466 is a copy of Išoʿ bar ʿAli’s Syriac-Arabic lexicon dated 1857 AG (= 1545/6 CE). The script is a very fine Serṭo — descriptions of scribal hands can tend to sound like you’re talking about wine! — with just the right amount of flourishes for the scribe to show some uniqueness while still making his text simply legible. After the lexicon proper ends, there is a short list (see the image above) of words that have šīn in Syriac but sīn in Arabic, and vice versa; note that a later reader has marked the pair sahrā and šahr with an X, and rightly given the Arabic meaning of sahrā as qamar (“moon”) rather than, strictly speaking, šahr (“month”), although the two sibilant words are surely related, just as “moon” and “month” are in English and other Germanic languages (but not Indo-European more generally).

On the same page as this little comparative list comes the colophon, written sideways, from which we learn both the scribe’s name and the date of copying. Aside from the frequently found terms of scribal self-deprecation, the colophon informs us that ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz completed the work “in a small amount of time in the year 1857 AG in the monastery of the see of Antioch, Dayr Al-Zaʿfarān”, and some of this information is repeated again in a Garšūnī colophon on ff. 300v-301r. This scribe, whose hand penned these lovely letters, was from Mardin, he tells us, specifically the part known as Qāṣur or Qāṣrā (see Payne Smith col. 3708 for references to these toponyms). I was so inspired by the work of ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, that I composed a few humble lines in his honor, to be sung to the tune of Abdul Abulbul Amir:

Of the sons of Mardin there’s scribes and there’s monks,

And many who write in Serṭo.

But of all of those writers, there’s none, I believe,

So precious as ʿAbdulʿazīz!

The note above the colophon is a purchase note in Garšūnī, where we learn that the scribe’s own son, Rabbān Pawlos of Al-Manṣūrīya (from which place we also know a female scribe named Maryam from about the same time period as ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz), bought the book in February of 1886 AG (= 1575 CE) from a certain Rabbān Šemʿon known as Ibn Al-Qarya (?).

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