Posts Tagged ‘manuscript’

Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP.
Enlightened Ottoman rulers once allowed a religion that wasn’t theirs to flourish in peace. Above is a manuscript created in those days. It’s at the library of Pantokrator Monastery in the Mount Athos, northern Greece.

Tolerance of people who are different is not always a quality associated with powerful leaders in history. But there are exceptions.

Consider this Associated Press (AP) story about the Ottoman Empire and a monastery in Greece.

“High in the great tower of Pantokrator Monastery, a metal library door swings open. There, deep inside the medieval fortified monastery in the Mount Athos monastic Orthodox Christian community, researchers are for the first time tapping a virtually unknown treasure — thousands of Ottoman-era manuscripts that include the oldest of their kind in the world.

“The libraries of the self-governed community, established more than 1,000 years ago on northern Greece’s Athos peninsula, are a repository of rare, centuries-old works in several languages including Greek, Russian and Romanian.

“Many have been extensively studied, but not the Ottoman Turkish documents, products of an occupying bureaucracy that ruled northern Greece from the late 14th century — well before the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453 — until the early 20th when the area became Greek again.

“Byzantine scholar Jannis Niehoff-Panagiotidis says it’s impossible to understand Mount Athos’ economy and society under Ottoman rule without consulting these documents, which regulated the monks’ dealings with secular authorities.

” ‘Ottoman was the official language of state,’ he told the Associated Press from the library of the Pantokrator Monastery, one of 20 on the heavily wooded peninsula.

“Niehoff-Panagiotidis, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, said the oldest of the roughly 25,000 Ottoman works found in the monastic libraries dates to 1374, or 1371. That’s older than any known in the world, he said, adding that in Istanbul, as the Ottomans renamed Constantinople when they made the city their own capital, the oldest archives only go back to the late 15th century.

” ‘The first documents that shed light (on the first period of Ottoman history) are saved here, on Mount Athos,’ he said, seated at a table piled with documents and books. Others, the more rare ones, are stored in large wooden drawers. These include highly ornate Sultans’ firmans — or decrees — deeds of ownership and court decisions. …

“The manuscripts tell a story at odds with the traditional understanding in Greece of Ottoman depredations in the newly conquered areas, through the confiscation of the Mount Athos monasteries’ rich real estate holdings. Instead, the new rulers took the community under their wing, preserved its autonomy and protected it from external interference. …

” ‘The monks’ small democracy was able to gain the respect of all conquering powers,’ [Anastasios Nikopoulos, a jurist and scientific collaborator of the Free University of Berlin] said. …

‘Mount Athos was seen as a cradle of peace, culture … where peoples and civilizations coexisted peacefully.’

“Nikopoulos said that one of the first actions of Murad II, the Ottoman ruler who conquered Thessaloniki — the closest city to Mount Athos — was to draw up a legal document in 1430 protecting the community. …

“Even before that, Niehoff-Panagiotidis added, a sultan issued a mandate laying down strict punishment for intruders after a band of marauding soldiers engaged in minor thieving from one of the monasteries.

” ‘It’s strange that the sultans kept Mount Athos, the last remnant of Byzantium, semi-independent and didn’t touch it,’ he said. ‘They didn’t even keep troops here. … Mount Athos was something like a continuation of Byzantium.’ …

“Father Theophilos, a Pantokrator monk who is helping with the research, said the documents show the far-flung influence of Mount Athos.

” ‘Their study also illuminates examples of how people can live with each other, principles that are common to all humanity, the seeds of human rights and respect for them, democracy and the principles of social coexistence,’ he told the Associated Press.”

More of the AP story at NPR, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Hill Museum & Manuscript Library.
A 1600s Armenian Gospel, with a depiction of the evangelist Mark, has been digitized by Benedictine monk Columba Stewart’s project.

I love learning about the many unusual careers and pursuits out there. In today’s story, a monk who was working on preserving old manuscripts by digitizing them, accidentally became a sleuth in dangerous regions.

Joshua Hammer writes at the Smithsonian, “When Columba Stewart, a 63-year-old Benedictine monkbased in Minnesota, arrived at the Kaiser Library, a government-affiliated archive in Kathmandu, Nepal, he stared up at the three-story building — wobbly, riven by cracks, too unsafe to use.

“It was three years after the massive Nepalese earthquake of 2015 that had killed 9,000 and laid flat much of the Kathmandu Valley. Rain leaked through holes in the roof, inundating broken masonry and congealing into gray mud on the floor. Many of the library’s manuscripts, some dating to the ninth century and written in Devanagari script (an ancient orthography system still used across the Indian subcontinent) on birch bark and palm leaves rolled up and held by clay seals, had been moved downstairs. The scrolls were stacked in bags and shoved into old glass cabinets on the ground floor. Exposed to the dust of an ongoing construction project to shore up the building’s weakened structure, as well as occasional seismic vibrations, the works were at risk of rapid disintegration.

“Stewart had flown to the Himalayas at the behest of Bidur Bhattarai, a Nepalese scholar at the Centre for the Studies of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg, who had traveled to his homeland after the quake to assess the damage. Library employees recounted their panic as books crashed to the floor and chunks of bricks and rocks came hurtling down: For months they had been forced to work outside under a tarp. …

“Stewart made three trips to Nepal in 2018 and 2019 (a spring 2020 visit was called off at the start of the Covid-19 worldwide lockdown), continuing discussions to begin digitizing the Kaiser Library’s collection, while initiating a pilot project at a nearby private institution: the Asha Archives. Its collection of 7,000 richly ornamented manuscripts on bound paper and rolled palm leaves was built up by Prem Bahadur Kansakar, and named after his father, Asha Man Singh Kansakar, a prominent early 20th-century social activist and writer from the Newari ethnic group — the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and the dominating force in Nepali politics and culture — and donated to the public in 1987. …

“Working remotely from his stateside base, Stewart supported Bhattarai in training a team of four Nepalese staffers to begin digitizing 1,000 manuscripts newly donated to the archives. Almost all were written on traditional Nepalese paper by Newari scribes. The works treat subjects including Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, religious rituals, Ayurvedic medicine (a holistic approach based on ancient Hindu writings) and grammar, along with poetry, written in Sanskrit, Newari and Nepali and dating to the 15th through early 20th centuries. Most had been wrapped in red- or yellow-dyed cotton for centuries, and recently have been rewrapped in undyed muslin or locally produced paper for conservation. …

” ‘Everybody knows Nepal because of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries,’ Stewart says, ‘but there’s also strong Hindu presence. The manuscript tradition witnesses that mix, in a variety of languages. Nepal is a meeting place; that’s what makes it so interesting.’

“Stewart lives and works at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he is a professor of theology at the affiliated St. John’s University and the executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML). …

Over the past 20 years his work has taken him from the Balkans to the Himalayas, from the Sahel region of Africa to the Middle East, injecting him into the heart of conflict zones and resulting in several narrow escapes from rebel movements and religious extremists. …

“ ‘Sometimes I feel like a war correspondent. Other times I’m cast in a religious role. In northern Iraq, I’ll be in my habit at Mass with 1,500 worshipers chanting in Aramaic. Then I’ll be going around in a tank.’ …

“Stewart has built up an extensive rare-book collection for the library. On a virtual tour using his iPad, he takes me down to the basement, and removes from a shelf one of his favorite recent additions: a four-volume Old and New Testament, bound in oak, and printed in Nuremberg in 1480, twenty-five years after the Gutenberg Bible rolled off the world’s first printing press. … ‘The paper looks like it was made yesterday,’ he tells me. ‘The ink is black as can be, mixed with linseed oil to take the bite out of the type,’ he says. ‘Every piece of type was set by hand, backwards. They had to do that for every single page. That’s an extraordinary achievement in the service of knowledge.’ …

“Stewart’s work represents a high-tech evolution of the Benedictine mission. He conducted his first digitization project in 2003, in Lebanon, and went on to the rest of the Middle East and the Balkans, where Christian minorities have grown increasingly vulnerable, their cultural patrimony put at risk. Word of his deeds spread. Malian librarians who had rescued 250,000 Islamic and secular manuscripts from Al Qaeda in Timbuktu by smuggling them to Bamako enlisted his aid. Muslim communities in India, threatened by the Hindu extremist rhetoric of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have turned to him for help digitizing their archives.”

Stewart’s life path emerged accidentally after he “joined the St. John’s faculty. He was prepared, he said, for a life of teaching and religious devotion. That bucolic vision was disrupted when the university president, aware of Stewart’s knowledge of early Christian sites in the Middle East, asked him to take on a manuscript preservation project for the Orthodox Christian church in northern Lebanon.”

At the Smithsonian, here, you can read what happened next.

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On twitter a while ago, Liz Devlin (@FLUXboston) highlighted a Vox video presenting an explanation of why snails appear in the margins of many medieval illuminated texts.

Vox reports that a Germanic people called Lombards, who had invaded Italy, were roundly scorned in the 1200s. Over time they became less warrior-like and more usurious. That is, they were money lenders, which gave them another kind of power. The theory is that the snail represents both the the hated Lombards’ lack of fighting ability and their power.

A group of librarians in the UK also looked into the research. They report as follows: “There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat. As early as 1850, the magnificently-named bibliophile the Comte de Bastard theorised that a particular marginal image of a snail was intended to represent the Resurrection, since he discovered it in two manuscripts close to miniatures of the Raising of Lazarus.

“In her famous survey of the subject, Lilian Randall proposed that the snail was a symbol of the Lombards, a group vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour, the sin of usury, and ‘non-chivalrous comportment in general.’

“This interpretation accounts for why the snail is so frequently seen antagonising a knight in armour, but does not explain why the knight is often depicted on the losing end of this battle, or why this particular image became so popular in the margins of non-historical texts such as Psalters or Books of Hours.

“Other scholars have variously described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality. It is possible that these images could have meant all these things and more at one time or another; it is important to remember, as Michael Camille, who devoted a number of pages to this subject, once wrote: ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon.’ “

Read more at the British Library website, here. Lilian M.C. Randall’s study “The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare” can be found here, at the University of Chicago Press journals site. Watch the video, too. It’s quite fun.

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