Units of Textual Division in Pre-Modern Cultures

The habitual contemporary units of textual division – such as sentences, paragraphs, verse lines – do not match the units of composition and presentation employed in pre-modern cultures. Poor understanding of such indigenous systems often leads to inaccuracies in transcription and interpretation. The problem is complicated by the lack of common language to describe textual division across cultures and the absence of uniform methodology.The aim of this seminar is to explore the diversity of text segmentation practices in epigraphic and palaeographic sources from different regions, identify the common patterns and unique developments in individual cultures, discuss common terminology and exchange experience in the techniques of textual analysis.

The event will take place at Fitzjames I Room, Merton College (OX1 4JD) at 5:00-6:30 pm.

  • Wednesday Week 3 (25 October)

    • Prof Lesley Smith, Harris Manchester

    • 'I'll do it my way': Experiments with manuscript layout from the twelfth-century Paris classroom

    • The 12th-century theologians working in the innovative schools of Paris and northern France taught by means of commentary on the Bible. Traditionally, teaching was primarily oral; but the later part of the century increasingly saw texts commented to parchment for wider circulation. This gave rise to a number of issues, such as how to differentiate the authoritative biblical text from the commentary, and how to differentiate commentators from one another. Fuelled at least in part by the increasing market for such school texts, a commercial and secular (as opposed to monastic) book trade began to flourish. We will look at the creative solutions the scholars came up with for presenting their material, and see how far they could be supported on the open market.

  • Wednesday Week 4 (1 November)

    • Dr Chris Foster, Pembroke

    • Textual units in Early Chinese manuscripts: Divisions manifest and hidden within the Cang Jie pian

    • What were the basic units that structured text in early China, and how were the divisions between those units marked or otherwise understood? With increasingly numerous caches of wood and bamboo-strip manuscripts at our disposal, we may now move past the abstracted text and analyze its physical manifestation, working with artifacts which were themselves produced and consumed from the Warring States, Qin and Han periods. Among these finds, copies of the Cang Jie pian 蒼頡篇 (the Cang Jie Volumes - a primary education character book evoking the name of the mythic inventor of writing in China) offer an ideal corpus to investigate textual divisions in one specific work during the Western Han. In this talk, I discuss how the description of the Cang Jie pian's textual structure recorded in the Hanshu 漢書 Yiwenzhi 藝文志 (a bibliographic treatise sponsored by the Han imperial court) relates to what we find on our manuscript sources; compare different media and formats for the text, to show how the presentation of the text is impacted; survey the various strategies adopted for signaling divisions in textual units within the Cang Jie pian (whether through punctuation, titles, numbering, character counts, space allocation, rhyming, thematic clustering); and ask both if these strategies are employed with regularity, and also if they correlate well to the material divisions of the respective textual carrier.

  • Wednesday Week 5 (8 November)

    • Parsa Daneshmand, Wolfson

    • Textual units and word boundaries in Elamite texts

    • Elamite is the language of thousands of cuneiform texts dating from 2300 BC to 350 BC. Elamite inscribed objects have been commonly found from an area between Susiana and Persepolis in Iran. A few Elamite texts have been discovered in central Iran, in eastern Turkey, and at Old Ghandehar in Afghanistan. The Elamite cuneiform script is an adaptation of Mesopotamian cuneiform, which can be distinguished paleographically from that used in Akkadian texts. Despite adopting Mesopotamian cuneiform, Elamite scribes gradually modified Mesopotamian types of textual divisions. In most Neo and Achaemenid Elamite texts, for example, line divisions do not take place at word boundaries. This presentation focuses on such indigenous characteristics of textual division in Elamite texts and discusses parameters such as the shape of tablets and the scribal tradition affecting the units of textual division in Elamite texts.

  • Wednesday Week 7 (22 November)

    • Dr Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, St Cross

    • Text-division in Greek mosaic inscriptions from the Near East

    • Mosaic pavements offer a striking combination of image and text in the decorative programs of civic and private spaces. The technique spread widely across the ancient Mediterranean, but there is especially rich documentation from the Near East in the late Roman through early Byzantine periods, on which this paper focuses. As an introduction, I consider the typology and diachronic development of mosaics in the region. I then examine the interaction of text and image in four well-known mosaic pavements from ancient Syria, Palestine, and Arabia: the mosaic of Socrates and the Seven Sages from Heliopolis-Baalbek; the so-called House of Leontios at Beth She‘an-Skythopolis; the mosaic map from Madaba; and the church decorations of Mt. Nebo. In addition to the layout of text as explanation of, and independent accompaniment to the artistic decoration, I consider significant trends in the division of the texts by punctuation marks, spacing, line breaks, geometric borders, and coloration. In closing I offer a comparative perspective on mosaics with inscriptions in Syriac and Palestinian Aramaic from the same region.


  • Elamite inscribed object, National Museum of Iran

  • Mosaic world map with captions, Madaba (Jordan)

  • A wooden prism with the Ji jiu pian, a Chinese character learning primer

  • Mosaic with agricultural and maritime scenes, city portraits, and dedicatory inscriptions, Church of St Stephen, Kastron Mefaa (Jordan)

Elamite inscribed object, National Museum of Iran Mosaic world map with captions, Madaba (Jordan) A wooden prism with the Ji jiu pian, a Chinese character learning primer Mosaic with agricultural and maritime scenes, city portraits, and dedicatory inscriptions, Church of St Stephen, Kastron Mefaa (Jordan)