On the pleasures of working with manuscripts

03.19.2014 | Kristian Heal

Bob Gay (left) and Kristian Heal (center) examine a Syriac text at the Vatican Library in April 2002.

I was trained in the study of religious texts written in Hebrew and Syriac. I worked almost exclusively with critical editions—modern printed versions of ancient and rare texts—though I also learned a little Syriac paleography as a Master’s student. It wasn’t until I came to BYU and started working at the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts that I discovered the pleasure of working with manuscripts. As I see it, this pleasure derives primarily from five areas: (1) A connection with the past; (2) Codicology and cataloging; (3) Encountering ancient texts within the context of manuscript culture; (4) Tracing the modern history of the manuscript; and (5) The discovery of new texts.

1. A connection with the past

Manuscripts themselves are artifacts with an origin and a history. As such, they can cause the same sort of vertiginous encounter with the past as one experiences walking into the Pantheon in Rome, down the streets of Herculaneum, or, indeed, when entering the Grandin book printing building in Palmyra. My enjoyment derives from time travel via a unique fifth-century manuscript (or “codex”) of the Commentary on Genesis by Ephrem the Syrian, or a massive collection of sermons complied in the twelfth century, or many, many more similarly compelling Syriac manuscripts in the Vatican and other European libraries. Autographs—documents hand-written by their original authors—are rare among Syriac manuscripts. Instead one usually encounters a manuscript’s scribes, owners, and readers through colophons, or notes and declarations of ownership and purchase.

I found a nice example of a reader’s note while cataloging Vatican Syriac 118 during my last visit to the Vatican Library. It simply stated that George the Lesser touched this manuscript on 1476 AD. Why leave such a note? Probably because the manuscript was huge—555 folios measuring 48 by 32 cm, written in three dense columns—and already a couple of hundred years old when he got his hands on it. Syriac manuscripts like this would have been something of a spectacle worthy of a visit when passing through the monastery that owned it. And if you got the chance to see it you would want to leave your mark. Interestingly, this tradition continues today, much to the dismay of librarians (I am told that many of the more impressive Syriac volumes in the Oriental Institute in Oxford bear the mark of some passing Syriac monk or Bishop).

2. Codicology and cataloging

Another aspect of codex-as-artifact is its construction. There is a pleasing art to studying and describing the preparation of the vellum (the manufacture of the paper used for a particular manuscript), or in finding and identifying a water mark, or identifying signs of the process of marking out the page before the work of writing even commenced. A careful description of the structure and composition of quires can indicate the completeness and integrity of a codex, just as information about the binding or rebinding of a manuscript can be learned from the type and language of quire markings or “foliation.” Bindings are a world unto themselves, and it is unfortunate that almost without exception the bindings of the earliest manuscripts were removed and replaced when they were acquired by western libraries. This adds to the excitement of working in places such as St. Catherine’s monastery and Deir es-Suryan in Egypt, where new finds of ancient manuscripts allow ancient bindings to be studies more fully.

3. Encountering ancient texts within the context of manuscript culture

Codicology and cataloging go hand in hand, one giving a description of the codex, the other of its contents. And for many scholars, cataloging is where the fun really begins because writing the catalog of even a small collection of manuscripts requires an extensive and detailed knowledge of the broad sweep of Syriac literature in a variety of genres. It’s a refreshing challenge to the contemporary academic inclination to specialize!

What’s more, one gets to encounter one’s favorite texts in their native context and in their raw state, which may be a fragment or an excerpt, or in another recension than we’re used to, or attributed to a different author, or repackaged with other texts. All of the neatness suggested by shelves full of critical editions disappears when we work with the manuscripts and that, to my mind, makes manuscript research even more exciting and important. It is important to recognize both the creativity and the conservativeness of the copyists when we read our texts.

4. Tracing the modern history of the manuscript

There is also a great deal of pleasure to be found from investigating the history of manuscript collections and individual manuscripts. This is an increasingly important part of codicology, but it’s also just good clean fun. For example, many manuscript enthusiasts know the compelling story of Constantine Von Tischendorf absconding with the Codex Sinaiticus, a story now expertly related by David Parker. But few people know the equally intriguing (and more honest) story of the how two sisters discovered the other Codex Sinaiticus (the Old Syriac Gospels), and nobody really knows how hundreds of fragments taken from Syriac, Arabic, Georgian, and Greek manuscripts at St. Catherine’s made their way from Sinai to libraries in England, France, Germany and Italy. I’ve been working on this intriguing problem recently in connection with a history of the Mingana collection of manuscripts in Birmingham and have been able to track the source of the Sinai fragments in that particular collection.

The Mingana collection was the last great collection of manuscripts assembled in England. Alphonse Mingana assembled the collection with funds provided by Edward Cadbury (the real-life Mr. Wonka), primarily from three trips to the Middle East and a large number of subsequent purchases through agents and booksellers.  However, Mingana’s acquisitiveness occasionally got the better of his integrity, and a recent catalog has shown that while he was working both as the cataloger of his own collection in Birmingham and as the cataloger of the John Rylands Library in Manchester he managed to exchange quite a few of the valuable manuscripts in Manchester with less valuable ones from his own collection in Birmingham. Perhaps more important is the story of his relationship with a remarkably prolific Syriac scribe from Mosul called Mattai bar Paulos. Mattai was the most prolific scribe of his generation (he died in 1947) copying well over a hundred manuscripts in his lifetime, many of which ended up in Mingana’s collection. Mingana corresponded with Mattai for over ten years after his trips to the Middle East and Mattai used to trawl through the best manuscript collections in the Middle East looking for worthwhile manuscripts to copy and send to Mingana. Some of these Mingana then published in photographic facsimile editions!

5. The discovery of new texts

Every now and again one finds a new text or a new witness to a text. Both of these are important and exciting events. I have spent a good deal of time delving into the Syriac manuscript sources of the numerous retellings of the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when I found two new manuscript witnesses of the earliest Syriac Joseph text in the British Library, one of which gave the complete account of the repentance of Potiphar’s wife that was lost from the Berlin manuscript from which this text was first edited. I’ve identified another three manuscripts since then in Paris, Tehran, and Kirkuk, Iraq.

I was also able to find a hitherto unidentified Syriac Joseph text in the British Library, which was lost only because it was misattributed in the manuscript, miscataloged, and overlooked by scholars for the next hundred or so years. Such discoveries allow one to interact with manuscripts not only as a cataloger and codicologist, but as a text critic, using these manuscripts to prepare new critical editions, a work that has pleasures all of its own. I’m convinced that there are many similar discoveries to be made, even among reasonably well-known collections.

With the growing number of virtual collections there is no reason why everyone cannot enjoy the pleasure of working with manuscripts! At the Maxwell Institute’s CPART we are doing our small but significant part in spreading the joy.


Kristian Heal received a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history and Hebrew from University College, London, and a Master of Studies in Syriac studies from Oxford University. He received a PhD in Theology from the University of Birmingham. He joined the staff of the Maxwell Institute as a research scholar in 2000. Since 2004 he’s served as the director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts. This post is based on a talk given to the BYU Religious Education faculty on November 2, 2012.