Since the start of the summer, mapping the trade of Syriac manuscripts has made significant progress. One of the challenges I expected going into this project was the trouble of uncertainty. Much of my attempt to harvest geographic data is dependent on ancient scribes making notes on the book about when and where the book was. Syriac scribes are famous for their love of the colophon, a kind of postscript in which the scribe celebrates finishing the arduous task of writing out an entire book by hand by writing more. Luckily, these colophons can be a treasure trove of information about a book, even if the text of the book’s pages is not of interest. In a way, these colophons provide the ancient analogue of copyright pages in modern books, providing what information you might need in citation—at least, when the scribes decide to offer it.
Colophons are only really useful for dates and places of composition, though. How do we know when a book was moved, and to where? I’ve spent enough time in used bookstores to appreciate how often book owners enjoy marking their names in the first page of a book. I’m happy to report that this practice has surviving examples from at least the 6th century, as readers and owners of books have been adding simple information about themselves in margins since antiquity. I wrote previously about Moses of Nisibis as a central figure in the movement of some of these books. I have come to appreciate the specificity of his note taking, as many books have notes added to the first few pages specifying his contribution.
Sometimes though, I have been deeply frustrated by monastic humility, self-denial, or the assumption that I will know the precise lineage of bishops in Antioch or Jerusalem. BL Add. 17227 is a great example of this. The scribe who notes the movement of the book does make note of the presenter of the gift, named Benham, but not the current year. Instead, he names who is the Metropolitan of key cities. The note specifically names Athanasius as Metropolitan of Alexandria, but leaves blank the name of the Metropolitan of Antioch. Through some minor detective work, it turns out that overlapping with the rule of Athanasius, there was a dispute for several years over whether Antioch was under the jurisdiction of Dionysius VII or John bar Ma’dan. With that dispute as a guiding point, we can date the transmission to a range of about seven years, between 1254 and 1261. Not a specific date, but better than a century range.
Mapping as a process really needs at least the semblance of certainty. A point needs coordinates to appear. A major challenge of this project has been balancing this need for certainty with the ambiguity of these ancient sources. What do we do with a book whose region of production isn’t known, but is gathered by Moses in his adventures in Mesopotamia? How do you map an arrow from point unknown? It is sometimes a bit like trying to fill out a connect-the-dots with half the numbers missing. Some of these gaps are accidents of preservation. A page falls out of a book, a worm eats a few key letters rendering a word unreadable. But some are purposeful. Monks might erase the names of heretics from their texts, or replace a page of a treatise with a preferred version. This summer has brought to the foreground the vital role of the scholar, mapmaker, or curator in choosing what to represent as “certain enough” and what difficult or ambiguous passage to leave aside. Even looking at the map as it stands, I still can’t help but wonder what is hiding in the blank spaces between my known points.
Finally, I have linked a video in which I reflect on what kind of information this map misses out on.