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Reading the Anhui University Bamboo Slip Songs of the States: “Guan Ju”

Friday, 11 September 2020

Dr Dirk Meyer, The Queen’s College, Oxford
Dr Adam Schwartz, Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology, Hong Baptist University


View the webinar on the JAS YouTube page (select "Oxford Virtual Master Class").

Keeping knowledge secret in Edo-period Japan (1600-1868)

Wednesday 26 February 2019

Professor Peter Kornicki FBA, Emeritus Professor of Japanese at Cambridge University

During the Edo period (1600-1868) printing, which had been practiced in Japan since the 8th century, suddenly took off in the form of commercial publishing. By the end of the 17th century, the range of books in print was so wide that people have rightly spoken of a ‘library of public information’. However, some types of knowledge were kept secret, confined to manuscripts and rarely if ever committed to print. What were these types of knowledge and what were the constraints that encouraged secrecy? To give one example, in 1804 the first surgical operation in the world using a general anaesthetic was performed successfully in Japan: hard though it is in our world to imagine why you would not immediately publish such a sensational medical advance, there were in fact very good reasons for not doing so and the details were only published in 1854, based on manuscript accounts of the operation. 

Hebrew Palaeography and Iconography from a Computer-Assisted Perspective

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Dr Stewart J Brookes, Lyell Fellow in Latin Palaeography, Bodleian Library and Dilts Fellow in Palaeography, Lincoln College

Large-scale digitisation projects have provided unprecedented access to high-resolution images of medieval manuscripts. In many respects, we might compare this revolution to the arrival of the printing press. This presents us with the challenge of what might we do with this material beyond browsing with the “Turning the Pages” viewers provided by repositories. How might, for instance, letter-forms or iconographic motifs be catalogued, curated and compared to support evidence-based scholarship? How fine-grained should our descriptions be? And do Digital Humanities projects and Machine Learning change the scope or even the nature of our research questions?


Writing Changes, Writing Change: Twelfth-century Medieval Irish Manuscript Culture in its Socio-Political Context

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Prof Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Cambridge University

This paper will examine how changes in writing practice exemplified in Irish manuscripts of the twelfth century CE signify broader cultural and socio-political changes and how the codices of the period, in particular the Book of Leinster, bear witness to major developments of the time in style, form and content. As elsewhere in Europe, the structure of the institution of the Church evolved significantly, and the religious landscape was transformed by the arrival of new orders. This had a considerable impact on the intellectual milieu within which manuscripts were produced. Involvement of secular rulers in written culture ensured that developments in the wider political sphere are also reflected in the manuscript monuments of the time though in ways that are not always immediately apparent. The paper will explore this time of considerable change in a broader European context, probing how changes in writing are symptomatic of writing change.    


Manuscripts and Monuments: ‘Oikonomies’ of Knowledge in Ancient Egypt

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Professor Jochem Kahl, Freie Universität Berlin

Text transfer is a complex, multilayered process of knowledge movement. From composing or copying a text to transferring a pattern or inscribing a tomb wall: the interaction between text content, materiality, actors, institutions and techniques always leads to new outcomes.

This paper will focus on the transfer of epistemic knowledge in Ancient Egypt. It will discuss the philological treatment of epistemic texts and will present examples of the knowledge transfer over the span of more than two millennia. The principles of the concept ‘Oikonomies of knowledge’, developed within the Collaborative Research Centre 980 ‘Episteme in motion’, will be presented for this discussion.

“Lifting the Ban”: On Ancient Mesopotamian Concepts of Disease and Cure

Wednesday 14 November 2018 - please note that the talk will start at the, exceptionally, later time of 5.30 pm

Professor Stefan M. Maul, University of Heidelberg

On the basis of newly identified but not yet published descriptions of therapies written on clay tablets from the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE, this paper investigates the Ancient Near Eastern concepts of “disease” and “cure” within their indigenous ideological framework.

The focus of the inquiry is on treatments of an abdominal disease called “ban”. As the term suggests, the Mesopotamian healers did not consider the acute and characteristic physical symptoms to be the specific trait of this illness. On the contrary, they regarded the true nature of the disease called “ban” to be a grievous and serious disorder in the relationship between the patient and his gods. From the Mesopotamian healers’ perspective the syndrome of the disease encompassed economic hardship, as well as mental and even life-threatening physical disorder.

Only the closing parts of the extensive treatments recommended by Mesopotamian healers prescribe the use of drugs, with their production carefully described. Previously, the conditions regarded as the true and deeper cause of the disease had to be removed.

Epigraphic Mania

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Michael MacDonald FBA, Oriental Studies, University of Oxford

From the mid-first millennium BC to the coming of Islam more than a thousand years later, the populations of Arabia had what might be described as an 'epigraphic mania'. They carved formal inscriptions and tens of thousands of graffiti in a number of indigenous scripts derived from the South Semitic script family as well as in Greek and many forms of Aramaic, and used these scripts to express individual and sometimes multiple identities.

This talk will examine examine some of the more bizarre uses of writing in the region. 

Text-image relationships in Persian manuscripts

Wednesday 21 February 2017

Charles Melville, University of Cambridge

Although the juxtaposition of verbal and visual passages on an illustrated manuscript page is an obvious one, the topic of their relationship has not been adequately addressed in the scholarship on Islamic art. Partly this is due to the different interests and background of historians of literature and of art, the former being primarily concerned with linguistic and textual issues – establishing correct readings, noting variants, editing, translating and understanding the authors’ work. Art historians, on the other hand, until relatively recently have concentrated on aesthetic issues, connoisseurship, the identification of artists, schools and styles, and analysis of composition, colour, ‘realism’ etc. Even when the context of the painting is discussed, it tends to be the context of production – and issues of patronage, audience, or precedents – rather than the verbal context. This is witnessed by the normal habit of reproducing images in art books with the text cropped away, even though the essential point of a miniature painting (and perhaps ones in other media) is to illustrate a text, be it a story or an allusion to one. The topic is even more neglected when it comes to historical rather than poetic or literary texts (although the distinction is often not clear cut).

We will briefly explore the state of the field in western art history before looking at the theory and practice of illustrating texts in the Persian tradition, The main objective is to understand how the relationship between text and image – whether close or distant – can enhance our analysis of these works, and how they were perceived and received over time, rather than merely decorated.



Wednesday 15 November 2017

Friend or Foe? Memory, Manuscripts, and Printed Books in South Asia

Dr Camillo Formigatti, John Clay Sanskrit Librarian, Bodleian Libraries, The Weston Library, Oxford

Although it has been long recognized that the evolutionary model orality–manuscript–print is not tenable anymore, historians of the Western book still hesitate to recognize that printing had a different (and not always revolutionary) impact on different cultures. South Asia offers a complex and to some extent still puzzling picture of textual transmission. The central role of orality in South Asian textual culture—and particularly in the Sanskritic cultural sphere—is greatly emphasized both by Western scholars as well as by indigenous intellectuals. Yet an incredibly high number of manuscripts were written in South Asia, in some regions even until the beginning of the 20th century, estimates ranging from eight to thirty millions manuscripts. On the other hand, print technology began to spread on a large scale only in the 19th century. In the present talk I will try and outline some reflections about the relationship between orality, manuscript culture, and print technology in South Asia, focusing on the factors that led to a late diffusion of print culture in the Indian subcontinent as opposed to other parts of Asia.

Materiality and reading (ancient/modern) of ancient Egyptian texts

Wednesday 31 May 2017

Andréas Stauder, École Pratique des Hautes Études/PSL Research University, Paris

Both ancient and modern readings of an ancient text happen in transmission, hence against the background of a necessary process of de-/re-materialization of the text. Modern interpretive frames specifically can be determined by a certain materiality of writing in present written cultures, different from ancient ones. A recurrent referential bias in reading is noticeable as well, with roots notably in Enlightenment ideologies refocusing language, hence writing, on its instrumental function of ‘conveying meaning (reference) transparently’, with writing ideally, if never fully, effacing its own materiality. Through a series of brief case studies, I therefore propose to discuss some implications of this materiality of reading with respect to Egyptian texts, both inscriptional and manuscript ones, hoping that these illustrations can resonate with similar issues encountered in working on other text and manuscript cultures.

Specifically, I will illustrate the importance of layout, visibility and writing as a sumptuous practice as integral to what makes the ‘inscriptional text’ an object that is substantially different form its transcription in modern scholarly edition, hence reading. I will also introduce practices of enigmatic writing that entice the reader/seer and make him pause, more broadly practices in which writing itself, the material and symbolic resource that is thereby deployed, is foregrounded as such. Regarding manuscript texts, I will present cases in which Egyptological readings, surprisingly or not, miss the ‘Urtext’ on which they are purportedly oriented while meeting ancient Egyptian readings that have emerged secondarily in the course of textual transmission, and why this is so. I will also illustrate how certain elements that would have had a subliminal, hence all the stronger, effect in performance (one temporality) necessarily escape linear reading (another temporality), yet can be reconstructed on occasions through compositional analysis (a third temporality).

Books and documents in Ancient China

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Olivier Venture, Maîtrise de conferences, Initiation à la civilisation de la Chine ancienne, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

After more than a century of discoveries, thousands of literary and technical manuscripts, as well as administrative documents, dating from the 5th century BCE to the 3rd century CE are now available for scholars working on Ancient China. This enormous corpus mostly composed of hitherto unseen materials already changed our perception of this period, which was long mainly based on texts chosen, edited and copied through centuries by generations of Chinese literate elite. In his communication, Olivier Venture will propose a general overview of this excavated documentation, with a particular emphasis on some of its specificities: archaeological background, material aspects, nature of the texts. Considering literary texts and administrative documents together in the same reflection constitute another important perspective in this communication.

The Zhou Bronzes and the Shaping of the Tetrasyllable Poems in China​

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Chen Zhi, Director of Jao Tsung-I Academy of Sinology; Chair Professor, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Hong Kong Baptist University

In this presentation Professor Chen Zhi examines formulaic expressions and set phrases that appear both in the received version of the Shijing (Book of Songs), China’s earliest anthology of poetry, and excavated Western Zhou bronze inscriptions (1045-771 BC). By looking across these two different corpuses of texts, transmitted and unearthed, Chen shall demonstrate how the shaping of a specific poetic form in the bronze inscriptions, i.e. tetrasyllabic meter and rhyme structure, can be dated to mid-Western Zhou—primarily to the reigns of kings Gong (ca. 917-900 BC) and Yi (ca. 899-873 BC), and implies that the early rhyme poems in the Shijing’s “Ya” 雅and “Song” 頌sections can be dated no earlier than this. Chen argues that the early development in form and style of these two genres of texts grew out of songs recited by worshippers in sacrificial and ceremonial activities. This study sheds new light on the origin of the tetrasyllabic poem and traces its roots back to elite court music related to ritual activities. Chen ultimately disagrees with the commonly held opinion that the tetrasyllabic poems, the earliest poetic genre in Chinese literary history, were improvised folk songs.


Writing Agents in Early China (ca. 11-8 cc. BCE): Secretaries and Makers of Slabs

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Maria Khayutina, Institute of Sinology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich

In a recent publication, Joshua Englehardt and Dimitri Nakassis call for “examining writing systems and early texts through the lens of the agency concept,” as this, among other things, can aid “archaeological interpretation of the historically particular subjectivities of past social actors” (Englehardt and Nakassis, eds., Agency in Ancient Writing, Cambridge 2013). Secretaries shi 史 and Makers of Slabs zuoce 作册, whose occupations included producing and handling written documents, are often mentioned in inscriptions on ritual bronze vessels from Early China, mostly dating from 11-8 cc. BCE. Well observable especially in the contexts of royal rituals, administration, or, sometimes, legal matters, the shi and zuoce have been often approached by historians with regard to their functions as writing officials and the functions of writing in the Western Zhou state (1046-771 BCE). The present investigation acknowledges a dialectic, interactive relationship between structures, including states, and practice of individual social actors, by whose agency social, political and cultural realities come into existence and are being transformed. It also warns against presuming the primacy of the state in the ancient Chinese society, which sometimes leads to blending out its overall social complexity. Exploring the activities of the shi and zuoce, it argues that they should be understood not just as passive functionaries, but rather as active agents in the Zhou society, whose influence reached, but was not limited to the domain of the state, and whose actions were conditioned by a number of objective and subjective factors. Inquiring about social background and standing of the shi and zuoce, the author complements the data of epigraphy by archaeological and art-historical data. This approach may allow for a deeper understanding of the role of writing and writing specialists in social, political and cultural processes in Early China.

Cuneiform culture at the margins: literacy and numeracy in a Babylonian village, c.1500 BC

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Eleanor Robson, Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History, University College London

Who could read, write and calculate in cuneiform in the early second millennium BC? Over the past few decades a new consensus has emerged to challenge old assumptions that it was a purely male, professional business. However, some certainties have remained: that it was a primarily urban phenomenon, that schooling took place in domestic contexts, and that the marshland communities of southern Iraq were essentially non-literate for several hundred years from the late 18th century BC.

Over the course of several seasons of excavation at Tell Khaiber, just 20 km northwest of Ur, the Ur Regional Archaeology Project (URAP) has produced unprecedented, archaeologically contextualised evidence for life in this supposed dark age. In this talk I will focus on the 150 or so cuneiform tablets that have been excavated to date, and the light they shed on cuneiform culture at this period. 

URAP is a collaboration between the University of Manchester, the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, and Iraq's State Board for Antiquities and Heritage. It is led by Professor Stuart Campbell, Dr Robert Killick and Dr Jane Moon at the University of Manchester.


Touching Skin: Why Medieval Users Rubbed, Kissed, Inscribed, Splattered, Begrimed, and Pricked their Manuscripts​

​Wednesday 17 February 2016

Kathryn M Rudy, University of St Andrews; Humfrey Wanley Bodleian Visiting Fellow

As literacy grew during the three centuries before the printing press, people learned not only how to read, but also how to handle their manuscripts. Certain physical gestures that readers enacted with illuminated manuscripts—including kissing or laying hands on certain images, and rubbing out the faces of others—imparted a ritual significance to books. Just as our twenty-first-century culture of ever-smaller screens has created a set of gestures and habits that had not previously existed (typing with two thumbs, scrolling, clicking, tapping), reading manuscripts, which were increasingly available in the late Middle Ages, also gave people a new set of physical gestures. In this talk I consider the settings and circumstances by which readers learned to handle—and deface!—their manuscripts. I argue that people in authority, including priests, teachers, parents, and legal officials, touched books publicly to carry out rituals. In so doing, they inadvertently taught audiences how to handle books in highly physical ways. Cumulative wear in books testifies to how they were used and handled.




A quest for knowledge: scrutinizing the Qur'an in Western Europe, 1143–1543

Wednesday 11 November 2015 

Anthony Lappin, Research Professor, National University of Ireland Maynooth

A summation of heresies, a depraved and diabolic text, the apocalyptic harbinger of the Antichrist and the very image of the Beast. These were at least some of the rave reviews garnered by the first Latin translation of the Qur'an during the middle ages. Indeed, the impression gained from secondary literature is often that the translation of the Qur'an carried out in Northern Spain and finished by midsummer of 1143 sought only to belittle and dishonour its source. In the first part of my paper, I shall discuss how we might uncover the nature of the circulation of manuscripts that led to the official publication of the text from Cluny, its subsequent perduring popularity, and the circles in which it was copied and consulted. In the second part of my paper, I shall discuss intellectual developments around the text during the fifteenth century, focusing particularly upon the re-elaboration of the Cluniac annotations and the Qur'an's use in philosophical discussions within learned circles of the late middle ages and early reformation period. I shall end with a consideration of how printing put a stop to the interesting developments that were fostered by a manuscript culture. Key figures discussed will be Peter the Venerable and Bernard of Clairvaux; Nicholas of Cusa; Marsilio Ficino; Iohannes Albrecht Widmanstetter, Theodore Bibliander, Melanchthon and Luther. The city councillors of Basel and Nuremburg will also gain villainous walk-on parts.