Friday, August 21st, 2015...9:30 am

Within the Cover of a Manuscript

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One joy of working with pre-modern manuscripts comes from the process of discovery. These can be great—as the finding of a lost work—and small—an amusing marginal note left by a medieval reader. My discovery came on the first day of the four weeks I spent at the Houghton Library last summer in an unsuspecting manuscript.

Houghton’s MS Syriac 108, folder 18, consists of six sullied, disordered folios. The folios are pierced by three holes on one side, and some have other folio sheets pasted on top of them. These features indicate that these folios had been repurposed for the cover of a later manuscript. A catalogue description of the manuscript suggested that it contained one letter by the sixth-century literary poet Jacob of Serugh (451–521 CE). I intended to collate this letter with the modern edition of his works and move quickly on to other projects.

MS Syriac 108 (18)

But, as I began work, I found far more than I could have anticipated. A few weeks of research enabled me to identify six letters of Jacob of Serugh’s letters preserved in these six folios along with four additional works. This represents the third largest collection of this renowned author’s letters and the most extensive collection after the eighth century. One of the six letters is, in fact, an excerpt that was excised for its concise theological expression and given the new title of “The Creed of Mar Jacob.”

Pre-modern manuscripts show how communities engaged in creative ways with literary works from the past. Paying attention to a seemingly insignificant manuscript, such as MS Syriac 108 (18), invites us into the reading communities that commissioned, produced, and read this manuscript. Paying attention to small things in research can lead to discoveries, even within the cover of a manuscript.

[Thanks to Philip Michael Forness, a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary and a 2014-15 Houghton Visiting Fellow, for contributing this post.]

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