Friday, 7 March 2014

Women scribes and copyists: a note on Syriac manuscripts on the occasion of the International Women's Day (8 March)

8 March is International Women’s Day. This fact has inspired the current post on women scribes and copyists.

During the last couple of years I have worked my way through library catalogues and read and translated colophons and notes in various Syriac manuscripts.  As pointed out on this blog earlier,  Syriac manuscripts will commonly contain such colophons and notes. I have read them with great interest, looking mainly for (1) references to manuscript circulation and (2) annotations referring to collaborate and ongoing text production beyond the assumed first hand, in the form of continuing engagement with the manuscript text. 

Now, Syriac colophons and notes will typically contain select information about some of those who engaged with the manuscripts. Quite often the scribe will record his name, as well as the place and the date of the completion of the manuscript. Sometimes copyists, correctors and binders will write their names and a short description of their activities too. Finally, we find the names of donators, owners and a few active readers. The side effect of the fact that those who engaged with the manuscripts tended to write their names in the codices is that we also know that the large majority of the scribes, copyists, etc., were men.

Honestly, in the Syriac manuscripts I have come across so far I have not seen many identifiable traces of women’s engagement with manuscripts. Sure, women are described in the literary texts contained in the columns of the manuscripts – some biblical women relatively often (Mary, Shmuni) – and in a couple of manuscripts historical women are mentioned in notes in the margins and on flyleaves. Some mothers and daughters are for instance mentioned in ownership notes. However, these notes are assumedly written by men.  

Other traces of women's manuscript engagement in the form of scribal, corrector, copyist or ownership notes are not particularly frequent. To me that is reason enough to highlight it whenever I come across signs of women’s manuscript practices.

So far I have seen notes from two identifiable women, testifying to their engagement with the manuscripts.

One note assumedly written by a woman is a colophon in a manuscript kept at the British Library, Sloane 3597. This manuscript is described by William Wright in his Catalogue of Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum acquired since the Year 1838 (volume I, pp. 236-237) (here). The manuscript, which is dated 1701-2 and copied in Lebanon, is a collection of texts for various offices. I had a look at the manuscript and its colophon when I visited the library last year. This colophon says that the manuscript was written by Maryam, daughter of the priest Yohannan. She (of course) describes herself in accordance with the tradition of scribal humbleness as the greatest sinner (fem.) there is (folio 85r).

The other note is found in a Garshuni manuscript described by William F. Macomber in the Final Inventory of the Microfilmed Manuscripts of the St Mark’s Convent Jerusalem. Manuscripts in Syriac, Garshuni, Arabic. April 16, 1990. This manuscript (ms 183) is A Collection of two treatises on confession and eight lives of saints and is dated 1533. I have not seen this manuscript myself, but it is included in Kristian Heal's handlist. According to the cataloguer, Macomber, the note says: “The manuscript belongs to the nun, st’l’bwh, daughter of Mubarak al-Barard‘i from Mardin, who copied it for her own use” (folio 232v/ pages 129-131 of the inventory/SMC 3-5 of the handlist).

These are but two examples of women’s manuscript activities. There may well be more – there are lots of Syriac manuscripts I have not seen and since I have never looked systematically for women’s manuscript practices in the ones I have in fact worked on notes may have escaped me. Hence, this post is more of an inspired tribute to female scribes and copyists on the occasion of the International Women’s Day than a thorough investigation of women’s manuscript practices. However, I know that there is a whole literature on women's manuscript practices out there, mostly on European manuscript traditions, and I hope that someone would write on women manuscript practices in the Syriac tradition too. For all I know, someone may already be working on it. If not, someone should do that job.
Happy Women's Day!