This week I learned a valuable lesson about planning, remembered why imposter syndrome is a waste of time, and read some Arabic.
It’s really important to make a note of local holidays even in your own country. When I went to Sicily two years ago, I had the right idea to check the dates of local holidays like Saint’s days in the towns where I wanted to visit churches, because everything shuts down on those days. Luckily, I narrowly missed them in the couple of sites I visited. However, it somehow didn’t occur to me that the same could apply in the US. For whatever reason, I haven’t noticed that Veteran’s Day is an observed holiday, i.e. that schools and businesses close for it. Maybe that’s because I’ve been at a private university that sets odd and arbitrary vacation days (like giving everyone the Monday before election day off). Regardless, when I arranged my travel and accommodations for this week, I included Monday, not realizing that the library would be closed and I wouldn’t be able to do any work. Rather than spend all day in my room pretending to write, I called up my brother and we took a walk on the beach and then went up into the hills at sunset. So that was nice, if something of a waste of time from a research perspective.
Always check in with your adviser, and admit where you’re having trouble. My adviser proves time and again that he’s amazing. I told him about my thoughts on uroscopy, and then admitted that I wasn’t sure how to use my time effectively and was having a lot of trouble reading manuscripts. He gave me some solid advice to be sparing in the amount of time I spend with each manuscript, reinforcing my ideas about what my research is about. This is especially great because it’s just nice to have someone who’s really on your side, who believes in what you’re doing and won’t try to change it or fit it to their own interests. And then he also just went and found a transcription of one of the manuscripts I had been having a lot of trouble with – he reminded me that when in doubt, just google a phrase that you can read, and chances are it exists somewhere online. I hadn’t been able to find this transcription because I’d been looking for the title. It’s hard to be honest with your adviser, because they’re the person you want to impress the most, but they’re also in the best position to help you.
If you want to feel productive, return to your wheelhouse. Because of my roundabout journey through language-learning (Japanese?), I feel more comfortable dealing with medieval Arabic than Latin. Which is really strange because I can definitely read Latin way better than I can read Arabic – that’s what happens when you deal with a language written in the same alphabet and that shares a lot of words with your native language. I guess I just find that I’m more familiar with the kinds of writing I encounter in Arabic – I know its structure, I know more of its idioms and abbreviations, and because of a course I took in codicology a few years ago, I know how to date Arabic manuscripts. So this was a fun thing I got to do this week, since UCLA’s Arabic manuscripts are largely lacking in real catalog information.
After my idea to look into urine flask imagery from last week, I requested six Arabic manuscripts – one is still being pulled, three are after the period I’m interested in, and one is just not so interesting (sorry, Avicenna). But one is a manuscript of al-Majousi’s Kitab Kamil as-Sina’a, which is the text that Constantine the African translated into his Pantegni. This is really important for the history of uroscopy in Latin because there’s an almost direct line from Constantine’s translations to new Latin literature on the subject. Except that Bernard of Gordon, whose work I was looking at last week, doesn’t mention Constantine or al-Majousi, which I found really odd. So I’m going back to the Arabic to try to understand this break. I didn’t really think I would just happen to find an illuminated manuscript of al-Majousi hanging out in this archive, since those are pretty rare, but I thought it was worth investigating. If nothing else, I actually wanted negative results in this case, because I think the urine flask image is a Latin invention and it shows the break between Arabic and Latin science across the translation/transmission period really nicely. So I really wanted to see a manuscript that was a good example of what translators might have had access to. But to do that, I needed to know that this manuscript was, in fact, medieval, which the catalog record didn’t tell me – see here for an explanation of this collection and its identifying stamp, which was all the personal property of an Armenian-Iranian doctor.
For someone like me, who is not an expert in Arabic script or manuscripts, it can be hard to know when an Arabic manuscript is from. Latin manuscripts are a lot more obvious because the simplicity of the Latin alphabet made it an easy transition to printing in the 16th century, and manuscripts beyond that point look more obviously like what we would now call handwriting and less like formal block lettering. Even though the printing press was available in the Arabic world much earlier, it didn’t really catch on until the 19th century (and a bit in the 18th) because Arabic script has a lot of ligatures – joined letters – that would require a lot more blocks and therefore make printing both more time-consuming and more expensive. So the best indicator for the age of an Arabic manuscript is the paper, in conjunction with the handwriting.
In contrast to Latin manuscripts, which typically aren’t on paper at all because paper and the printing press went hand in hand in Latin Europe, Arabic manuscripts appear on paper around the 8th century. This difference is a great illustration of the different social function of writing in Latin vs Arabic – writing is a technical skill in Latin, and so it tends to be confined to a smaller elite and technically educated class, whereas in Arabic there is an education barrier to be sure, but a much wider range of people can write. Going along with that, Latin manuscripts tend to be really big productions because they are less commonly made – there isn’t the same kind of infrastructure around producing writing materials that there is for Arabic. Paper requires more startup cost to make – you need big vats and screens for creating the pulp and straining it, and it requires a lot of skill and attention to detail to make usable paper. On the other hand, parchment is a lot of work, but you don’t need as much specialized equipment and it’s related to a process that people are doing anyway – eating meat. Making parchment is seasonal and therefore limited, which works with the more specialized nature of Latin manuscripts, whereas making paper is regular and industrial, which goes with a consistent market for books. I’m being careful not to claim any causal relationship here, because I think the methods of production developed simultaneous to the social functions of writing – one didn’t dictate the other. But still, over time the paper Arabic manuscripts were written on became more consistent-looking (and starting in the 15th century are largely made in Italian factories), and so if you’ve seen a few examples you can get a sense of the timeline and begin to date manuscripts based on their paper.
For my manuscript of al-Majousi, it was immediately clear that this was high medieval, because the paper is smooth and regular, but the impressions from the frame used to strain the paper pulp has just a bit of variation, and there’s no watermark. This tells me that it was made earlier: on a reed, rather than wire, frame, and it was not produced in a factory. But also that it’s made in a time when paper production is fairly regular, so it’s not super early either. Still, that gave me a huge time range. Al-Majousi died at the end of the 10th century, and this kind of paper (to my eye at least) could have been in use up until the 15th. So I looked more closely at the writing to see if there were any distinguishing features. What immediately caught my eye was how the text wrote the word في (pronounced fi, meaning “in”). You can see it in this image right in the center, looking like a number 2 or maybe a snake. Aside from the fact that there are no dots (which is common, since native Arabic readers just need the shapes of the letters as reminders for the most part and the dots are there to avoid confusion for letters that look alike), this is, to me, a strange way to write this word, because the tail of the letter goes back behind the word to the right, rather than swooping to the left (in the direction that the text is read). I had never seen this before. So I looked up some books on Arabic codicology (the study of manuscripts) and eventually found a catalog of references – a book of images of manuscripts from different time periods to show the range of handwritings so scholars can compare them to texts for the purpose of dating them. It was a really massive book. And there I found, again and again, this strange في.
These examples placed my manuscripts squarely in the 11th century – this في appears really consistently starting in the beginning of the 10th century, which is far too early for this manuscript’s content, and then decidedly disappears by the middle of the 12th. Which means, based on when al-Majousi was alive, that this manuscript is from some time between ca.975 and 1125 or so, i.e. what I might call “the long 11th century”. This is fantastic for me, because it means that this is a fairly early manuscript of al-Majousi’s work, and it’s relatively contemporary to Constantine the African (who was translating in the last couple of decades of the eleventh century), meaning it’s probably fairly similar to the copy he had. It’s a size and quality that would have been accessible to someone of the middle class, which is also appropriate given that Constantine was a merchant. My only question now is where this manuscript was made – my guess is somewhere in Iran or as far west as Baghdad (a major book production center), since it’s an earlier manuscript for this text by a Persian author, and this particular manuscript was later collected in Isfahan. Even though it could have traveled a long way west and back, it’s more likely that it stayed close to home.
So what do I do with this thing now that I know when it’s from? Mostly, I’m interested in the way it’s organized. Similar to the Bernard of Gordon leaf, it’s written in black ink with headings in red, but unlike that manuscript, it doesn’t have the illustration in the first letter of the text. In fact, in some chapters, the first line isn’t even centered and someone (maybe the original scribe, maybe a later editor) went back and wrote over the chapter headings in red to distinguish them from the rest of the line, like in this image, the third line from the bottom. Even though the Arabic doesn’t have a distinctive image in it’s initial letter, the scribe still used a tiny bit of what you might call calligraphy to distinguish the beginnings of chapters. Because Arabic has all these nice horizontal lines, it’s easy for a scribe to draw attention to the text by just extending them. So this scribe would lengthen the second ب (baa, sounding like “b”) in باب (bab, meaning “section”) to mark the start of a chapter. You can see this really clearly on the left hand page in this image, where every super long line is that extended ب of الباب because these pages are the table of contents. The last one, around the middle of the page, is the start of the first chapter of the book. This little effort gives me the sense that the lack of illumination in this manuscript isn’t necessarily because the scribe couldn’t add images (there was space, after all), but because it wasn’t the style of this particular book, it didn’t necessarily match the purpose of reproducing this text. So there’s a kind of equivalency to my Arabic and Latin texts right now, in that they both have a small amount of ornamentation, but in the Arabic it’s in the service of ease of reading, whereas in the Latin it is more decorative and perhaps symbolic (literally, the urine flask image is a symbol of the contents).
I’m thinking about how I can build on this. What does the structure, organization, and appearance of these manuscripts tell me about why they were made/ how they were intended to be used? How do the differences between these features across the two languages indicate a continuity or break through the act of translation/transmission? How can I know from the way a manuscript like this looks whether a later author writing in a different language (Bernard of Gordon) had ever seen such a manuscript, or a translation of it, or even read about it second-hand? How can I tell whether Bernard of Gordon didn’t include al-Majousi’s work directly because he hadn’t read it or because he simply didn’t like it?
I might go back to these manuscripts next week – and hopefully by then I’ll have the sixth Arabic manuscript I had requested, which is another copy of al-Majousi. But most likely I’ll be moving on to the 12th/13th century manuscripts from southern Italy to see how/whether they fit into this picture I’m beginning to form.
I also took the opportunity this week to read up on the Salernitan Questions, which I encountered last week while looking for information on Bernard of Gordon. It’s adding an interesting dimension to my thinking about translation, because the guy who has done most of the work on the Salernitan Questions, Brian Lawn, claimed that even though they appeared as a didactic tool around 1200, they weren’t really influenced by Arabic science in translation at all, and actually mostly represent Greek science that had been available in Europe since the 9th century. I found this guy’s writing to largely be kind of racist, but in a really genteel and insidiously subtle way. It did lead me to another topic, though, which is the Sicilian Questions, a similar set of disputations posed by Frederick II, the Sicilian king/Holy Roman Emperor who took on the appearance of an enlightened ruler but was very much involved in cultural appropriation rather than patronage. Frederick’s attempts at playing with Arabic scholarship actually really point back to the earlier Sicilian kings as patrons, because he was trying to imitate their efforts when he didn’t totally understand them. So I’m interested in using Frederick as a bookend to the translation era as a counterweight to Constantine on the other end. The Sicilian Questions might be a good way to do this, along with the works of Michael Scot (one of which I just realized I’m set to look at while I’m at the Huntington in May).