Scribal Identity and Agency: Final Conference 

16–17 December 2021 on Zoom: please register here

§1. Urban Scribes in Mediterranean Antiquity: East and West (16 Dec.)

Script and Identity in Late Bronze Age Ugarit (4.15 – 4.45pm UK time)

Philip Boyes (Cambridge)

The Syrian city of Ugarit at the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1250–1190 BCE) was a site of great diversity in language and script. Like many Near Eastern societies, it used the Akkadian language and logosyllabic cuneiform for many purposes, as well as utilising many of the document styles, genres and library texts which were characteristic of Mesopotamian cuneiform culture. However, this globalised writing culture existed alongside some very distinctive local developments, most notably a cuneiform alphabet which combined the style of Mesopotamian script with the structure of the Levantine linear alphabets which were developing at that time. This was used to write the local vernacular language, Ugaritic, in a variety of text genres, including literature, ritual, economic and letters. In addition, numerous other minority scripts and languages are attested at the site. This presentation will explore how these innovations in script and writing culture relate to wider social changes in Ugarit and the region during the thirteenth and twelfth centuries, and specifically how they reflect changing identities within Ugarit’s literate elites.

Consequences of Literacy: Identity and Agency of Roman scribae (4.45 – 5.15pm UK time)

Benjamin Hartmann (Zurich)

The scribae were the official scribes, documentary specialists and archivists of the Roman Republican state. Assigned to the various magistrates, they were paid to draft and administer the public financial and legal documentation the office holders were expected to produce. In Rome, they were entrusted with the administration of the public archives and the official documents these were composed of. As a result of their professional function and the workings of the apparitorial civil service of which they were part, they found themselves at the heart of an expanding public documentation and soon enough were considered the veritable experts on documentary practice. They effectively held a monopoly in handling the so-called tabulae publicae, the official repository of public knowledge. In a society, in which oral procedures were predominant and literacy was mainly confined to the governing elite and the state, experts of literate practice occupied a special place. For the scribae, the consequences of literacy were manifest. Men of humble origins and small means, bearing the stigma of pursuing paid work, found themselves ennobled by the importance of what they were entrusted with. At the same time, control over the written arcana of the state and access to the powerful were bound to yield tangible benefits and, as a result, high social mobility – even if it meant transgressing the boundaries of what was morally and legally accepted.

§2. (Non-)marginal Scribal Identities in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages (16 Dec.)

Networks of Female(?) Scribal Activity, 1100–1250 (6.15 6.45pm UK time)

Elaine Trehane (Stanford)

This paper will discuss new work on women scribes, as part of my collaborative research project, ‘Medieval Networks of Memory’. I will consider two earlier thirteenth-century mortuary rolls, thinking particularly about categories of western scripts, hierarchies and aesthetics of palaeographical classification. I’ll suggest that the odds are stacked against women theoretically, professionally, and practically. Plus ça change.

To be a Scribe of Christian Arabic Texts: Skills and Challenges (6.45 – 7.15pm UK time)

Vevian Zaki (Oxford)

Under Islamic rule, Christians of multiple denominations and linguistic backgrounds—Coptic, Greek, Syriac—came to be united in their use of the Arabic language. They used Arabic not only in everyday life and in an official capacity, but also for engaging with scripture and forming their own theology. This use of Arabic, combined with a multilingual heritage, influenced scribes of Christian Arabic texts and situated them in a peculiar position in terms of the skills they required and the challenges they faced in their work. This paper presents examples of these scribes from the eighth to the fourteenth century, examining their strategies and decisions, how their work overlapped with the authorship of the texts, and their overall role in manuscript production.

§3. Inscribing Religious Communities into the Modern Era (17 Dec.)

Monastic Constitutions and the Dissemination of Administrative Power in Premodern Tibet (4.45 – 5.15pm UK time) 

Brenton Sullivan (Colgate)

In this lecture I will introduce the genre of monastic constitutions—the founding and administrative documents used in monasteries in the Himalayas, Tibet, and Mongolia. Monasteries were the principal sources of political and religious power across Tibet and Mongolia, but it was the standardization and dissemination of monastic practices and administration by one school of Tibetan Buddhism in particular—the Dalai Lama’s Geluk School—that facilitated its historic rise and triumph over other Buddhist rivals. Thus, the textualization and codification of monastic practices, including ritual and those aspects of monastic life that are not explicitly political, paved the way for the Geluk School’s domination of the religious and political landscape beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Scribes from Ethiopia (East Tigray): Practices, Profiles, Portraits (5.15 – 5.45pm UK time) 

Denis Nosnitsin (Hamburg)

Ethiopia is distinguished by an ancient Christian culture that emerged as early as the 4th century CE. It involved the creation of Christian literature in a local language, and the rise of a professional group of scribes responsible for the transmission of Christian texts and production of parchment manuscripts. The Ethiopian Christian tradition of manuscript making continues until now. The paper will present the scribal community of a part of northern Ethiopia (East Tigray) in historical perspective, exploring types of scribes, their working settings, modes of their work and their self-expression as we can trace it today in the manuscripts. While the role of monastic centres of writing was diminishing, a flexible network of rural scribes seems to have existed already in the late pre-modern times, becoming the main supplier of manuscripts for the local ecclesiastic institutions. Additionally the paper will present a ‘case study’ dealing with one of the several prolific scribes recorded in the area.