Thoughts after Workshop: ‘Colophons and Scribal Cultures across the Early Modern World’

On 2 July, I was attending the workshop ‘Colophons and Scribal Cultures across the Early Modern World’ at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. The workshop was organized by Christopher D. Bahl and Stefan Hanß and brought together ten researchers from the UK and Germany discussing manuscripts and manuscript cultures, and its connections to print cultures.

The workshop took a deliberately transregional perspective, addressing “a variety of languages and regions ranging from Europe to the Middle East, South Asia, and the Americas”. Centered around the colophon, its declared aim was to “reconsider our understanding of the creation of professional scribal identities and the ways in which scribes inserted themselves into larger bookish cultures across the early modern world.”

Olly Ackermann spoke about her field work in an Indian Bora community and the living manuscript tradition centered on this community’s library. Manuscripts are still being copied around the year by the male members of the community’s inner circle. One of the most intriguing points was the use of the phrase “yā kābīkāj” in the manuscripts. Kābīkāj is the name of a bitter plant which was put into manuscripts to keep termites away. The use the phrase has apparently been used to guard this heritage against wider notions of evil.

Christopher D. Bahl (School of Oriental and African Studies/Institute of Historical Research) spoke about the emergence of wider communities of reading and copying of Arabic texts in the 17th-century Indian subcontinent. Surviving manuscripts from this period surpass by far the numbers of Arabic manuscripts from preceding centuries. Christopher connects this phenomenon with the spread of colophons and other paratextual elements that indicate a professionalization of scribes and copyists.

Nur Sobers-Khan (British Library, Lead Curator, South Asian Collections) discussed a related topic. Based on the Delhi manuscript collection at the British Library, she tried to identify scribes who produced the 2,000 volumes this collection contains in Arabic. The star scribe produced at least fifteen different books and is thus identified in notes by other people.

The Delhi collection was also at the heart of Arthur Dudney’s (University of Cambridge, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) presentation. It revolved around the question whether there was a market for education and text books for aspiring bureaucrats. Literacy in Persian and, on higher levels, Persian poetry. Arthur tends to a positive answer, proof for which he sees in the many cheaply produced manuscripts with repeating contents.

On the Europeanist side, Liesbeth Corens (University of Oxford, Faculty of History) introduced us to communal scribal practices among female convent members in Early Modern Northern Europe. Manuscripts often carry different handwriting switching in the middle of one text, often repeatedly. The colophons in those texts do not refer to individual scribes but rather mention the convent or its abbot. It stands in stark contrast to Christopher’s case, where people are emphasized instead of places.

Hanna Murphy (King’s College London, Department of History) explored the interplay of scribal work and print culture. Calligraphy apparently benefited from the pervasiveness of print, and print manuals propagated new styles to be engaged by experienced and aspiring calligraphers both. Hanna rejected the notion that this led to artistic stasis in the field but could rather show the opposite: Calligraphers might have begun by copying the printed examples but would also develop them in very different and original directions in their own work.

Stefan Hanß was likewise concerned with the interpretation of modes of signatures that went beyond the colophon. Bringing together examples from the Early Modern Mediterranean, Europe, and the Americas, he explored their meanings. Stefan argued vehemently for the creativity behind early modern signatures and the extratextual connections they created. They can be interpreted as speech acts or they resemble the corporeality of that which they signify: for instance, a communalist signing of a rebellion might be arranged in a circle, very much like a modern-day sports team comes together to hype themselves up.

Likewise, the two contributions on the Levante addressed alternatives to the colophon. Laurenz Kern (Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Islamic Studies) spoke about ṭaqrīẓ, a type of text often associated with the modern blurb. It is not simply any endorsement of a work but was a distinct genre, which occasionally even merited its own collective volumes. Its author and subject of endorsement are always identifiable, and it was usually written by an established for an early-career scholar. Still, it remains unknown what its primary function was. Was it a tool for authentication or did it serve a purpose in a text’s distribution?

My own presentation asked which modes of authentication were available when compiling works in the handwriting of others, a recompilation rather than a copying. The presentation revolved around a small composite manuscript probably compiled by the mid-19th century (Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, MS 21201 bāʾ). It contains on 21 folios four autograph works by Ibn Ṭūlūn. The presentation makes use of marginal remarks and titles added in different hands than the author’s to explore the engagement of readers and owners with the autograph and the impact their annotations exert on the organization of the manuscript or even the meaning of its individual textual components. In conclusion, I argued that also colophons have to be studied in conjunction with other paratextual elements to understand its relevance in scribal cultures.

David Zakarian’s (University of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies) presentation on Armenian colophons concluded the day, and it did so in a wonderful way. Armenian colophons are something else, and were apparently the favorite place to place mentions of your family, your neighbors, and yourself. Patrons who issued manuscripts used this place generously. And scribes repeatedly made use of their intermediary position to insert themselves somewhere in there, as well. This function of the colophon even made its way into Armenian language. there, it is known as yištakaran, a place to remember of for remembering, in essence a time capsule that would sustain one’s memory long after one’s death.


Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Thoughts after Workshop: ‘Colophons and Scribal Cultures across the Early Modern World’", in Damascus Anecdotes, June 27, 2018,

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