New Publication on Domestic Devotion and Book Circulation

In 2015, I attended the conference Domestic Devotions in the Early Modern World, 1400-1800 at the University of Cambridge. The project was organized (very well, I would add,) by the ERC project Domestic Devotions: The Place of Piety in the Italian Renaissance Home. In early 2019, the resulting edited volume has been published in the Brill series Intersections.

Cover of Domestic Devotions in the Early Modern World

Organized in six sections, the volume’s sixteen chapters address historical practices from Korea to Brazil. One of the great advantages of this interdisciplinary endeavor is certainly that it highlights the differences in available sources as well as the intersections this topic enjoys with other approaches in the diverse fields and disciplines.

The three contributions concerned with the Middle East, for instance, describe domestic spaces in devotional terms as another site in which communal practices could take place. Dotan Arad’s “When the Home Becomes a Shrine: Public Prayers in Private Houses among the Ottoman Jews” shares this approach with Marion Katz’s “Commemoration of the Prophet’s Birthday as a Domestic Ritual in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Damascus”. They each investigate the conditions for the transfer of hitherto communal or even public rituals into domestic settings.

The third relevant contribution is my own chapter “Between Home and Sufi Convent: Devotional Book Use in Early Modern Damascus”. Relying to a large degree on the same source as Katz—Ibn Ṭawq’s taʿlīq journal—I reconstruct book circulation within the author’s own circles. Book circulation was not a transfer from communal to domestic spaces but rather happened between the two—and in fact relied on both spaces.

Book circulation and the reception of works and ideas are intricately connected to each other. Book circulation is a cycle, and while endowments became important due to the efforts of private collectors, the support they offered for copying and preserving manuscripts, would amplify the impact of certain works, which in turn might be taken out once more—as well as maybe endowed another time—by private individuals.

Domestic spaces play a role in book circulation also in a more circumstantial way as the latter relied, at least as Ibn Ṭawq’s sample suggests, on close social ties which largely followed familial relations. In turn, those familial relations would sometimes be cemented within the circulating books:

[T]he memoria functions of books can only be understood against the background of their circulation between private and endowed libraries and a wider readership. A book was a tangible object that connected one’s present to the great figures of the past or to one’s forefathers – and promised to offer the same for oneself in the future. This was not to be achieved by storing it away. Its value was realized only by its future readers and copyists. Another pious or scholarly owner’s or user’s inscription on its pages would prove the worth of its contents as well as add to the baraka – and thus the value – of the book. (164)

The presence of a book in the domestic space of a family might have made it, in turn, agreeable to serve as a space where the memory of the family would be preserved henceforth:

One example is a manuscript codex which contains, among other fragments, a partial biographical work by Kamāl al-Dīn [al-Ḥusaynī’s] father, a list of his own children and their birth dates, and a teaching certificate for his great-great-grandson. As several ownership annotations of other descendants of Kamāl al-Dīn indicate, this book – it was hoped – would perpetuate the memory of the family even after their library might be sold (as a whole), dissolved or endowed. (164)

The chapter constitutes my first foray into the terra incognita which domestic devotion still largely is in the field of Middle Eastern history. Book and manuscript use appears to me one good starting point exactly because their circulation allowed for traces of such practices to survive. That might become even more interesting for the periods after 1800 when compilations would increasingly become multimedial through the inclusion of printed written and visual materials.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "New Publication on Domestic Devotion and Book Circulation", in Damascus Anecdotes, January 20, 2019,

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