Seminars

  • Founded
    2011
  • Seminar Number
    751

The seminar investigates the roles of literacy and writing in religious traditions.  Its goal is to serve as a research group for the comparative study of literacy and the uses of writing as a form of communication technology in world religions.  Approaching the relationship between religion and writing through the lenses of literacy and communication technology, the seminar strives to address all media – from inscriptions on stone and clay tablets to internet websites – and all literary genres – from myths and commentaries to divine revelations and hymns – as well as the theoretical and practical implications of the absence, or rejection, of writing.

Seminar Blog


Co-Chairs
Susan Boynton
slb184@columbia.edu

Dagmar Riedel
dar2111@columbia.edu

Rapporteur
Anya Wilkening
abw2163@columbia.edu

Meeting Schedule

10/04/2021 Online Meeting
12:00 PM
The Early Epitome (mukhtaṣar) of Islamic Law: Evolution of a Genre
Christopher Melchert, University of Oxford (England, UK)
Abstract

Abstract

The epitome (mukhtaṣar) is a succinct collection of the rules of Islamic law. The earliest examples, considered part of the Mālikī tradition, actually present themselves as collecting the wisdom of a regional tradition. Regional schools gave way to the personal across the ninth century CE, and the earliest Shāfi`ī epitomes, by al-Buwayṭī (d. 846?) and al-Muzanī (d. 877?), present the doctrine of a respected individual, the imam of the school. By comparison with the classical epitomes to come, they include a good deal of the authors themselves, sometimes reinforcing or even disputing the imam’s doctrine. The earliest Ḥanafi epitome, by al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 933), still expressly chooses among available options. The earliest examples of the classical epitome, from the mid-tenth century, are by the Ḥanbalī al-Khiraqī (d. 945/6) and the Ḥanafī al-Marwazī (d. 945). They presage the formation of guild schools, certifying who may or may not give opinions as an adherent. The chief development to come after them is growing concern to identify the single best estimate of the rule for any given case, sidelining alternative rules attributed to the imam or to major followers.





11/08/2021 Online Meeting
12:00 PM
The Art of Oriental Esther Scrolls: Hebrew Manuscripts between Jewish and Muslim Worlds
Dagmara Budzioch, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) and University of Wrocław (Poland)
Abstract

Abstract

Esther scrolls (Heb. pl. megillot Esther) are parchment manuscripts of the Book of Esther. The story of the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of Haman, the highest official of the Persian King Ahasuerus, is read aloud every year on the festival of Purim, most commonly in the synagogue. Decorated Esther scrolls first emerged in Italy in the 1560s, and gained their greatest popularity among Italian Jews during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This creative endeavor spread gradually to other European Jewish communities, living mainly in Holland and Central Europe. Only from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards were illustrated Esther scrolls produced in Muslim-ruled societies.

Illustrated Esther scrolls are very attractive and highly important Jewish artifacts, which emerge after the fifteenth-century adaptation of letterpress printing to the production of Hebrew books. Although all Esther scrolls include the same text, they differ significantly in terms of the motifs, layout, and techniques used to adorn them. These differences reflect the general tendency of Jewish art to adapt the artistic vocabulary of the dominant – Christian or Muslim – milieus. Such influence is already visible in the decoration of the earliest extant Hebrew codices from the tenth century which feature the same motifs as manuscripts produced in the Islamic lands. Extant oriental Esther scrolls, mainly from Morocco, Iraq, and Turkey, form a relatively small corpus of manuscripts, and they are rarely a subject of scholarly discussion. Their ornamentation is strongly influenced by Islamic art, as it reflects the intense interest in architectonic and floral motifs, geometric and abstract ornaments, and calligraphy. For the same reason, animals, human figures, or narrative scenes from the Book of Esther rarely appear in the decorative program. Since most scrolls do not have colophons, their ornamentation – in particular their architectonic frames, large calligraphic letters, and carpet pages – is used for discerning their date and origin. During the presentation, the main types of decorated oriental scrolls will be shown, and their ornamentation will be compared with that of manuscripts such as marriage contracts. This will be a starting point for the discussion of the transmission of artistic traditions between the Jewish and Muslim worlds.





12/06/2021 Online Meeting
8:00 PM
Seeing the Sounds of Love: Visions of Women and Music in a 15th-century Jewish Prayer Book
Suzanne Wijsman, University of Western Australia (Australia)
Abstract

Abstract

The Oppenheimer Siddur is a richly illuminated, small format Ashkenazic book of daily prayers in the Oppenheim collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The manuscript’s colophon tells us that it was completed in 1471 by Asher ben Yitzḥaq for use by his children. That Asher ben Yitzḥaq was not only the scribe, but also the artist of this manuscript has been confirmed in prior research by identification of common stylistic elements in the artwork and text embellishment, along with scientific imaging analysis of pigments and production process. This means that the illuminated texts of the Oppenheimer Siddur reflect the singular, personal perspective of its creator as expressed throughout the manuscript in its scribal, material and artwork features. Among the most notable of these is the pervasive musical theme that is woven through its many decorated pages, and three unusual illustrations that associate women with music, including two showing them in active performance. Women playing musical instruments seldomly appear in medieval Hebrew manuscript art and, when they do, they are most often associated with a specific, archetypical narrative context, such as depictions of Miriam with her timbrel illustrating the Exodus story in Passover haggadot. Rabbinic prohibitions against instrumental music in the synagogue mean that the presence of performing musicians—especially women playing musical instruments in a medieval Jewish prayer book that would likely to have been intended for use by men—is an intriguing anomaly in a Jewish liturgical manuscript. Relying on iconographical and textual evidence, this paper will explore the links between these three images in the Oppenheimer Siddur and topoi referencing music seen often in Northern European secular art of the late medieval period, but rarely in the art of Hebrew manuscripts, such as the allegory of the folly of love. It will discuss how these images of women and music resonate with other musical iconography in this medieval Jewish prayer book, and how they relate to broader medieval Jewish iconographic traditions as well as to Jewish literary sources, such as midrashic commentaries on the biblical Song of Songs which, in Jewish tradition, is read as a love allegory. Examination of this body of evidence may help to explain the raison d’être of this feminine musical imagery in the Oppenheimer Siddur and inform its interpretation as visual commentary on the liturgical texts where it occurs.





02/01/2022 Online Meeting
12:00 PM
Sharīa genres and their writers in Imamic Yemen
Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
Abstract

Abstract

The historical instance in question is the twentieth century decades of an imam-led polity in the uncolonized, late agrarian age society of highland Yemen. With the support of ethnographic photography, I survey the relations between the main roles in sharīʿa governance, and between the main types of sharīʿa writings in the textual formation of the period. The perspectives are those of historical anthropology and Islamic Studies.





02/28/2022 Online Meeting
2:00 PM
Nuns and Their Texts: Religious Writing from North German Medieval Convents
Henrike Lähnemann, University of Oxford (England, UK)
Abstract

Abstract

Religion and writing are closely linked in the late fifteenth-century reform movement which swept through North Germany, building on the earlier monastic tradition and expanding them with added colour, enthusiasm, and bilingual learning. My paper looks at what can be learned from the material and textual culture surviving in a group of convents around Lüneburg, their devotional manuscripts, images, sculpture and the implements of their daily engagement with religious writing: from styli to parchment scraps sewn up as hem stiffeners into dresses for the statues. My talk will survey the material culture of Wienhausen and link it with the textual evidence from two of my ongoing research projects: The Nuns’ Network (Letters by the Benedictine nuns of Kloster Lüne, http://diglib.hab.de/edoc/ed000248/start.htm) and Medingen Manuscripts (Devotional manuscripts by the Cistercian nuns of Kloster Medingen, http://medingen.seh.ox.ac.uk/).





03/28/2022 Online Meeting
2:00 PM
Jewish Legal Documents Between Antiquity and the Abbasids: From Regional to Religious Scribal Traditions
Eve Krakowski, Princeton University
Abstract

Abstract

The earliest medieval Jewish legal documents at historians’ disposal survive in the Cairo Geniza – a small group of marriage contracts, private agreements, and property transfers from tenth-century Egypt, Syria, and Ifrīqiya. These documents reflect a remarkably coherent and well-developed writing culture that Jewish scribes employed throughout the Abbasid and post-Abbasid Middle East. Where had this scribal tradition come from, and how had Jews across such a wide stretch of territory come to adopt it? This talk will use the early Geniza legal documents as evidence for the evolution of Jewish documentary practices over the course of the first millennium.