Introduction: navigating complex texts from pre-modern cultures in the digital age

Yegor Grebnev
Research Centre for History and Culture, Beijing Normal University (Zhuhai); BNU-HKBU United International College,
Lesley Smith
Harris Manchester College, Oxford,
Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.
Abstract: Visually complex texts emerge as a response to complicated cosmological, social, or ontological phenomena in reality, and different pre-modern cultures came up with their own unique ways of re-presenting this reality in textual form. Today, with the help of digital media, it becomes possible to discuss visually complex texts from different cultures in a way that facilitates the exchange of research ideas between specialists working with different regions and languages.

Keywords: material philology, mise-en-page, manuscripts, digital representation.

The trend toward Material Philology has helped to discredit the misconception that the text is an idealized immaterial entity independent of its carrier, which can be dismissed and forgotten once a modern academic transcription and edition becomes available. It has spread the realization that writing is not simply a reflection of thought, but a ‘new technique for thinking’, which determines not only the structure and form, but even the argumentative message of a text (Nichols 1997: 19). Nevertheless, it is still easy to live under the illusory impression that the format in which we are accustomed to perceive and share textual information—that is, the format of the European book—is the consummation of the literary traditions of all cultures. The spread of this format across the globe and its adoption in regions that previously practised alternative forms of text-structuring and layout seems to ‘prove’ the validity of this impression. Due to the ubiquity of the western book page, it sometimes requires conscious effort to remind ourselves that the codex form is only one among many historical approaches to arranging textual information, and one which may in turn be superseded by novel and more efficient ways of structuring texts (Vandendorpe 2010).

Trying to think beyond the codex form was the starting point for the collaborative project presented in this volume. Of course, it is not the first attempt to examine the strategies of the mise-en-page across pre-modern cultures (e.g., Bausi, Borbone, et al. 2015; Quenzer 2021), neither does it presume to assemble a comprehensive inventory of such strategies. However, this project does strive to approach the problem of textual layout in a novel way, deliberately choosing a manuscript page—or a similarly sized unit in epigraphy or manuscript cultures that employed smaller physical media—as a basic unit of inquiry, serving as an invitation to reflect upon the unique features of each tradition after appreciating the surprising commonalities that consistently emerged in different cultures. Every participant was asked to select a representative example of a page from the culture of their study, and to describe the strategies of text structuring by explicating the methods of layout, script, punctuation, headings and sub-headings, the use of colour and spacing, and so on. The discussions at the conference co-organized at The Queen’s College and Merton College in Oxford in May 2019 showed that this approach indeed triggered lively and illuminating exchanges, which easily transcended narrow disciplinary boundaries and engaged the participants across the board.

Factors of complex composition and layout: calendrical cycles

No specific suggestions were provided to the participants regarding the themes and contents of the manuscript or epigraphic objects that they should choose, and it was interesting to observe that many submissions, namely those by Christopher Foster, Christian Prager, Nafisa Valieva, and Andreas Winkler, dealt with calendrical cycles, as broadly conceived. The regularity and orderliness of the calendar calls for structured representation of the text—a problem that every culture has solved in its own way. The example of an early Chinese divinatory manual surveyed by Foster illustrates how the limits of the top-to-bottom linear format of Chinese bamboo-strip manuscripts were transcended creatively by adopting an unconventional layout where charts and blocks of text span multiple strips, thereby violating one of the most faithfully observed conventions of Chinese writing. Simultaneously, the vertical space of bamboo strips, which is conventionally filled to the end, was divided into segments allocated to discrete units. Nevertheless, this creative arrangement did not break away from the conventions entirely, and the lines of text were still confined to the width of bamboo strips even when they were made part of diagrams that span many.

Prager offers an illuminating guided reading of part of the Dresden Codex, one of the few Maya hieroglyphic manuscripts spared by conquistadors. He proposes to read the manuscript as a guide that allows human actions to be coordinated with calendrical cycles, which were not simply forces of nature but rather anthropomorphic agents. To achieve this goal, the manuscript uses script and visual imagery interdependently, making it impossible to untangle the one from the other. This interdependency of script and non-script elements, attested in various pre-modern cultures (Melville 2009–2010; Houston and Stauder 2020), necessitates a semiotically enhanced interpretation of the traditional text that accounts for its diverse meaningful elements (Lotman 1977).

Winkler presents a convincing reconstruction of a fragmentary Demotic astrological manual based on a thorough comparison with similar manuscripts preserved in a better state. He positions the document in the context of astrological consultation, demonstrating how it may have been perused by a professional astrologer as part of a multi-stage divination process. Several features of the manuscript, such as the use of red ink and blank space, set it apart from other contemporary compositions and raise questions about the significance of the scribe’s somewhat idiosyncratic decisions concerning the layout and decoration.

The twentieth-century Ethiopian manuscript studied by Valieva is the most recent among the examples surveyed in this volume in terms of the time of production. Despite being written in the politically and religiously turbulent environment of Ethiopia during World War II, it faithfully follows the peculiar conventions of textual division informed by the liturgical practices of the Ethiopian Church. In this way, it provides a rare example of the persistence of a conservative manuscript tradition in an environment increasingly dominated by Western book culture.

Factors of complex composition and layout: society

The complexity of the text’s structure may correlate with the complexities of the society in which it was created. In a concise study of a second-century AD trilingual contract discovered in the Judean Desert, Michael Zellmann-Rohrer examines the interplay between the different languages and scripts of the manuscript. The structure of the text provides a glimpse at the complex multi-cultural environment of Roman Arabia at the time. These different languages and scripts corresponded to distinct identities and social roles, sometimes helping to reinforce the validity of the contractual document.

The issue of validation is also discussed in Francesco Bianchini’s study of a medieval Indian land-grant copper plate, which combines the properties of a legal and ritual artefact, whose binding force was derived not only from its durable material form, but also the ritually significant elements of the inscription. By paying close attention to minute differences and discrepancies between the text’s elements, Bianchini offers insights into the complex process of its production.

Heather O’Donoghue discusses the Karlevi runestone, situated on the island of Öland in Sweden, in which a non-trivial textual layout was employed to record a mnemonically redundant skaldic verse, a textual form used in the pre-literate Scandinavia to preserve textual information in a purely oral environment. The complex arrangement of the runic text, requiring quite a bit of walking and head-turning to read it in its entirety, is complemented by the inherent complexities of skaldic verse, whose dense message was constructed using a complex system of poetic associations. The placement of the runestone in a historically significant location must have suffused this semantically dense inscription with yet another layer of meaning.

Factors of complex composition and layout: systemized knowledge

The complex arrangement of the text can also result from deliberate learned effort, facilitating the transmission of intellectually sophisticated information in an environment that has accumulated a large body of texts with complex commentarial traditions. Umberto Bongianino surveys a page from a medieval Arabic dictionary, whose elaborate layout serves the purpose of the text as well as the aesthetic priorities of the culture, resulting in a combination of astounding visual beauty and efficacy.

Lesley Smith discusses a page from a twelfth-century scholarly edition of the Psalter with commentary by Peter Lombard, which provides an incredibly sophisticated assemblage of text-structuring elements designed to facilitate scholarly engagement with scriptural texts. The meticulous arrangement of information on the page is a visual feast, but also a triumph of scholarly consideration, inviting reflection on how carefully planned presentation of the text might facilitate scholarly discourse, not only in pre-modern environments, but also today.

To conclude, the complexity of the text’s structure appears to result from a range of sources: calendrical patterns, societal structure, or the multi-layered knowledge accumulated in the society’s more sophisticated circles. Each example of an innovative textual arrangement that the contributors have surveyed can therefore be understood as a small triumph of human ingenuity, which has successfully tamed the disturbingly complex reality and confined it to the manageable space of a page or an epigraphic artefact.

Agency of cultures and individuals in textual layout

Although the structure of written artefacts demonstrates the eternal and shared concern of humans to order reality, it would be simplistic and inaccurate to conclude that all literate cultures address the problem of text structuring in the same way. For example, the slanted lines of text that look organic in the Arabic dictionary examined by Bongianino are impossible to imagine in Chinese or Maya hieroglyphic writing. The narrow bamboo strips that constitute the basic material units of support in China impose a stricter limit on the directionality and arrangement of writing than is observed in cultures that use material support with less constraining properties. Such objective material differences resulting from the nature of a script or its most common material support generate long-lasting habits that persist even after the writing has evolved and the material constraints have been overcome. As a result, the same problem of ordering complex reality through the text is solved by different literate cultures in visually distinct ways. The books that we read are, so to say, the lenses through which we discover the world. Had the leading centres of wealth and power in the modern period coincided with the East Asian or the Middle Eastern textual tradition, today we would observe reality through very different textual glasses.

The problem of text structuring is impossible to describe adequately without thinking about the human agent, someone who comes up with an orderly mental representation of reality before entrusting it to writing (McGann 1991). Therefore, all contributors chose to interpret their examples as metadiscursive formations (Hyland 2018), whose complex layouts are predicated on the social environments of their production, and which can therefore be elucidated through the analysis of the specific social practices (divination, validation of property relations, liturgical performance, etc.) and culture-specific forms of knowledge (multi-layered commentary with internal and external references, a vocabulary based on an advanced linguistic theory) that made such layouts necessary.

Thus, in order to engage meaningfully with texts, familiarity with their script is not sufficient; one has to be able to link them back to their social contexts ‘in order to revitalize the texts, making them function once again in terms of the author’s original purpose and new reader’s needs’ (Nystrand 1989: 73). The amount of such extra-textual knowledge varies between the cases examined by the contributors to this volume. Due to the unique features of manuscript and epigraphic traditions, the strategies that they adopt to depict reality can only be approximated, but not accurately transcribed or translated under the conventions of western writing, leaving important aspects of meaning unnamed and unaccounted for. The more complex artefacts, such as the Karlevi runestone surveyed by O’Donoghue or the Dresden Codex described by Prager, remind one powerfully that ‘reading’ is a culturally determined experience (Iser 1972; Vandendorpe 2013). The connotations imposed on this word by the practices of modern life, implying immediate grasping of a non-ambivalent linguistic message, do not adequately match the kind of engagement presupposed by these pre-modern inscribed artefacts. The description, and perhaps even a classification of such types of engagement anticipated by written artefacts from different pre-modern traditions, remains a desideratum for future studies.

Discussing pre-modern text structures in a digital way

While preparing the materials for this issue, the editors realized that they faced the same challenge as the composers of epigraphic and manuscript artefacts surveyed in it, having to find a functional way of entextualizing the discussion of diverse text structuring practices across cultures in a way that colleagues of any disciplinary background could access easily. For this purpose, the static format of the standard academic page was deemed too constraining. While the digital media have provided means of structuring and sharing information in ways that had previously not been possible, there have been relatively few attempts in the humanities to adopt such technologies when sharing research findings. In response to this limitation, a custom layout for the interactive digital edition of this journal issue was developed. This was facilitated by the enthusiasm of the editorial board of this journal, who encouraged the experiment. The technology employed here is simple but powerful: in addition to the main article contents in HTML format, including text and images, every contribution includes a zoomable image of the manuscript page or the facet of an epigraphic artifact that is the primary focus of each paper. These images, positioned in the right-hand part of the screen, are presented using OpenSeadragon, an open-source application that has greatly facilitated the processing of high-resolution images on the web. In order to make the processing of textual and visual information more engaging, every article is accompanied by a set of internal hyperlinks connected to elements of the primary image using simple JavaScript. This allows the reader to engage with specific examples discussed in the text without switching between its different parts or interrupting the course of reading. Dynamic highlighting makes it possible to follow the discussion of unfamiliar manuscript and epigraphic traditions without having to know either the script or language that they employ.

The visual format developed for the electronic version of this issue can be perceived as a running commentary on its contents, complementing the discussion of the alternative ways of text structuring in different cultures of the past with a suggestion for one way in which it might be possible to structure the presentation of academic research in future.


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