Pippa’s recent adventure in Oxford at the Navigating the Text conference (Merton/Queens Colleges) and Babel exhibition (Bodleian Library), featuring some beautiful books and objects

When you write something down, how do you arrange the information in the writing space? This is actually not a straightforward question to answer, and it can be affected by all sorts of contextual considerations. What is the medium being written on, and what are its physical features and dimensions? Does your society have conventions about how to write down and arrange information? Are you writing it down for other people to read and consult, or just for yourself? Is your message clear in the linguistic content of what you are writing, or do you need to add illustrations? How can you visually break down complex information to make it easier to navigate?

These were the sorts of questions on the agenda at the Navigating the Text conference I was attending in Oxford this weekend.

Dresden 46.jpg
Detail from p46 of the Dresden Codex, one of four surviving Mayan books. Image from the digitised version here.

Chinese bamboo manuscript ‘day book’, 2nd C BC. Image from here.

The point of the conference was to take a world-wide view of text structuring, and bring together scholars working with very different traditions to share thoughts on how we talk about epigraphic and palaeographic traditions. So we had everything from Mayan codices (see the picture above) to Chinese ‘day books’ (see the picture to the right), and from Norse runestones to Ethiopian manuscripts, via Arabic dictionaries and Mesoptamian divinatory commentary in cuneiform.

Bringing together scholars working on such different material has quite an impact, as it highlights some similarities across great geographical and chronological divides that may point towards similar human responses to similar human problems. But there are differences too, and they can be just as enlightening, because writing can be conceptualised in completely different ways in different societies. Social context of writing was the theme of our recent CREWS conference, in fact, and I noticed that some of the same ideas came up here too. A particularly noticeable one was the tendency to highlight important text in red, or to use red text to mark particular types of information or help the reader identify new sections.

Different uses of red pigment in writing. Top-left: Papyrus Carlsberg 81, a 2nd C AD astrological manual in Demotic with red to highlight new sections. Top-right: Use of red ink in a 14/15th C AD Ethiopian manuscript ‘Gadla Lālibalā’. Bottom-left: Day names distinguished from distance numbers using red in the 13th C AD Mayan Dresden Codex. Bottom-right: The striking red lines of text in the 10th C AD Karlevi runestone.
Neo-Assyrian divinatory commentary in Akkadian. Image is detail from here.

It was also very interesting to consider different ways in which authors check their own work and make sure that it is accurate and understandable. Sometimes illustrations are necessary, but an illustration can be conceived in all sorts of different ways. For instance the sort of integration of text and image that Christian Prager showed us in the Mayan Dresden Codex (see bottom-left in the picture above) is quite different from the small illustrations unusually added to the Neo-Assyrian commentary on a divinatory text (see picture to the left), written in cuneiform, that was the subject of Parsa Daneshmand’s paper.

The Mukhtaṣar al-ʿAyn of Abū Bakr al-Zubaydī from the Qarawiyyīn Library in Fes. Image from here.

I was quite delighted by the complexity of the layout of an Arabic dictionary presented to us by Umberto Bongianino. This was a luxurious illuminated vellum manuscript, a 12th C copy of the Mukhtaṣar al-ʿAyn of Abū Bakr al-Zubaydī. Just the concept of this work was in itself a magnificent testament to Islamic scholarship. It is a dictionary in which each entry (or ‘lemma’) is a word. Now you might think the dictionary would be arranged in the established alphabetical order of Arabic script – but you’d be wrong in this case. Instead the author used ‘phonetic permutation’ order, a scholarly concept based in linguistic observation that arranges words by the most common consonants beginning with ‘ayin, with further divisions into word roots with different numbers of letters. Although firmly rooted in linguistic observation, you can’t help feeling that ordering the text in this way could be quite confusing when you are trying to look up a word! This is a copy of a 10th C work, and the copyist has very carefully annotated his version and added check marks as he verified passages.

My visit to Oxford was already full of wonderful pieces of ancient and medieval writing thanks to the Navigating the Text conference, but while I was there I also took the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Bodleian Library: Babel: Adventures in Translation. The translation theme is explored through a number of different works ancient and modern, and pieces together many fragments of many stories, from multilingualism and colonial encounters to language experiments and the (multi)cultural transmission of stories. I very much recommend that you go and have a look if you are in Oxford before 2nd June (2019).

There were too many delights on show to tell you about all of them, but I particularly wanted to mention John Wilkins’ 17th C An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language. I had heard Kelly Minot Rafey mention this in her paper at the AWLL12 conference last month, and was intrigued to see a copy in the ‘flesh’. The book is a very strange exercise that combines the principles of shorthand with an effort to reduce all human knowledge to writable sequences, so that all things of the same class begin with the same letter or syllable (e.g. all fish begin with the syllable ‘za’, birds with ‘ze’, other beasts with ‘zi’) and are written in a specially designed shorthand script. Weird but rather wonderful, and in some ways it reminds me of the sorts of experimentation reflected in al-Zubaydī’s dictionary and the linguistic principles on which it was founded. Sadly Wilkins’ philosophical shorthand never caught on!

Detail from a page from John Wilkins’ An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language, currently on display in the Bodleian’s Babel exhibition.
Tolkien’s ‘Book of the Foxrook’, on display in the Bodleian’s Babel exhibition.

As a lifelong fan, I was especially excited to see a notebook written by JRR Tolkien when he was 17, featuring what was probably his first attempt at creating a new writing system. He began writing this in Esperanto (which of course is itself an exercise in language creation), and created what he called the ‘Privata Kodo Skauta’ (‘private scout code’). This combined interest in linguistic / phonological systems and ways of encoding them in writing was to be a long-term interest of Tolkien’s, and of course the most famous outcome is to be found in his most famous works set in Middle Earth. I am planning at least one whole blog post on Tolkien’s invented writing systems, so I won’t say more right now – but if you are a Tolkien fan then do keep an eye on this blog around 29th July (which is the 65th anniversary of the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring).

The exhibition featured many different works of translation, even a signpost in Welsh and English, reminding us that issues of translation and multiculturalism are with us all the time. There was a series of different translations of Homer’s Iliad, a trilingual Bible, numerous reinterpretations of stories featuring animals, even the Llyfr Coch Hergest (which contains the Mabinogion and a Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, originally written in Latin). Let’s just say I was in old book heaven on this visit.

yuca.jpgReturning to Mexico (see the references to the Dresden Codex in Mayan above), the beautifully coloured Codex Mendoza, was quite stunning. Dating from 1541, this manuscript is a testament to Spanish rule and conquest in Mexico, as the ruling authorities created resources to help them record and understand local culture, language and even writing. Records like these have been very useful in trying to decipher Mayan writing, and in establishing the history of languages like Nahuatl, but at the same time they are a sometimes disturbing legacy of colonial encounters. Curiosity about language, writing and culture was a pervasive theme in the exhibition, whatever its context or background – and we have to remember that not all cultural encounters are positive ones, even if they can result in the sharing and dissemination of knowledge.

This copy of the Buddhist teachings known as the Mañjuśrīnāmasamgīti (below) was also rather eye-catching. It has horizontal lines of text in black written in Tibetan; Mongolian characters beneath them, also in black; and red text in Sanskrit written in Nepalese script. Not only do we see three different languages involved here, but three different writing systems and three different writing traditions. What united them was a spreading cultural and religious practice, and when brought together they show a process of transmission and mutual understanding and communication.

Mañjuśrīnāmasamgīti manuscript, written in Tibetan, Mongolian and Sanskrit in Nepalese script, on display in the Bodleian’s Babel exhibition. 

This has been a very fruitful and stimulating stay in Oxford, and has very much made me think about how the issues highlighted by the conference and exhibition relate to my own work on the ancient Mediterranean. More on that soon, but in the meantime I will just finish by saying that it was nice to see two old friends in the Babel exhibition: a Linear B tablet from Knossos and a Linear A inscribed libation vessel, both on loan from the Ashmolean where I have seen them many times before.

Linear B tablet from Knossos, on display in the Bodleian’s Babel exhibition.
Linear A inscribed libation vessel, on display in the Bodleian’s Babel exhibition.

These two objects were included in the Babel exhibition on the pretext of ‘lost and found languages’ and the issue of decipherment. They make a nice epilogue to this blog post because not only do we have here two different languages written in very similar script (Linear B was adapted from Linear A with probably quite a limited degree of change to its structure), but we also see two different writing traditions. Clay tablets like the one above account for the overwhelming majority of surviving inscriptions in Linear B, and represent a very standardised method or writing and arranging text. Meanwhile, its predecessor Linear A is attested on a wider range of objects and sometimes shows more flexibility in the way text is arranged (especially when written on objects other than clay documents). This vessel in fact gives us the only probable example of boustrophedon writing in Linear A, with the top line reading left to right and the bottom line reading from right to left (almost all other inscriptions are left-to-right, with the occasional right-to-left). How did such differences come about? Well that’s some interesting some food for thought as I return to my research after a very pleasing weekend.


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa for website

One thought on “Arranging and navigating text

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