Project Aims

The ability to write its languages sets humanity aside from all other species on the planet, and allows it to transmit the knowledge and traditions of one generation to the next, and operate the complex administrative mechanisms on which rest all developed forms of government. Yet built into this process of textual transmission is human fallibility, which can obscure, or even subvert, the legacy of the author or text. In the modern era, the printed page is capable of destruction, and the electronic text of corruption; but both have largely escaped the bane of the pre-typographic era, the copyist’s error. Faulty reading, bad spelling, poor handwriting, and – in the case of dictation – deficient hearing, combine to make many scribal copies of pre-modern texts obscure, and force the modern editor or commentator to devote lengthy consideration to the exact form of the text itself before interpretation can begin. At the epicentre of this multifaceted textual distortion of the legacy of the past lie scribes, paradoxically both central and invisible in many societies before the typographic revolution in the 15th century. Their activity shows forth in every text preserved from antiquity, but they themselves can be frustratingly elusive, shielded behind other titles, or within private spheres into which our sources do not reach.

This project sets aside the often futile search for the historical figures of the scribes themselves in favour of a focus on observable phenomena: the evidence of their activity in the texts themselves. It places scribal activity, not scribes themselves, at its methodological and analytical centre. It recognizes that the act of writing is a quotidian vernacular practice, and turns away from the realms of the copying of literature to the documents of everyday life. In the work of documentary scribes, it seeks a path back to a greater understanding of their role and place in ancient societies, and contributes to a deeper understanding of the processes which drive the operation of pre-printing societies, and transmit knowledge and traditions forward in human societies.

To better understand these processes, the project takes as its source body everyday documents on papyrus from Roman and early Islamic Egypt (30 BCE – ca. 800CE). This provides a multilingual society which participated heavily in literacy at many levels (even amongst those who could not themselves write), and successive bureaucracies which generated and demanded tens of thousands of documents in which quotidian scribal practice may be observed. Focusing on documents written on papyrus in Greek and Coptic which exist in two or more copies, this project aims to:

• construct a typology of features, both textual and visual, by which scribal activity may be classified;

• use this typology to discuss the processes by which documents were reproduced, and the standardization of scribal practice and competence;

• illuminate how professional (or otherwise) scribal training was.

The project’s focus on original documents which survive on papyrus from antiquity will allow us to marry an examination of the aesthetic of a manuscript to an appreciation of its textual and linguistic features; we will also investigate how manuscripts encode authority in their physical and textual form. Thereby we will be able to ask a further series of interrelated questions:

• Are we able to observe the interrelationship between scribes operating within an administrative milieu and those in the wider community (who e.g. drew up and copied private contracts or petitions)?

• Can we comment on the persistence of scribal practice over time, and its degree of consistency over space?

• Can we assess the degree of control and professionalism of scribes, and coherence of the notion of scribal professionalism over space and time?

• If the dissemination of literacy and uniform scribal practice is a vehicle of dissemination of uniform culture, what conclusions can we draw about the ability of the Roman and Early Islamic administrations to disseminate a uniform conception of culture via scribal practice?

Observing the regularity of scribal behaviour will allow assessment of how organized scribal education was, and thus how professional or otherwise the activity itself was. In wider perspective, it will allow assessment of how literacy was valued by Roman and Early Islamic administrations in Egypt, and the public at large, and to what degree literacy emerged as a key mechanism for the maintenance of both empire and faith. Assessing the mechanisms of scribal behaviour and the means by which texts were copied will provide insights which can be applied to the manuscript tradition in general, and the transmission of sacred and secular literary texts. Although we do not set out to investigate and localize ‘the scribe’ in ancient society, the study will contribute to a better understanding – and further problematising – of this often elusive figure.



The project draws its pool of evidence from Egypt between 30 BCE and 800 CE. The end-points are set by the conquest by Octavian (Augustus), when it became part of the Roman Empire (30 BCE), and the point roughly 150 years after the Arab conquest of 642 CE. After ca. 800 CE, the administration of Islamic Egypt became a more distinctive new entity, but in its formative years it remained superficially unchanged from the preceding Roman administration. During this eight-hundred year span of history, we can observe scribes working against two successive dominant ruling systems: the Roman Empire and the early years of the Islamic Caliphate. Throughout this period there are substantial administrative, cultural, and linguistic continuities, against the background of which the project will trace the development and persistence of scribal traditions, and examine how administrative tradition adapted and changed behind the scenes through close examination of scribal activity.

The focus of the study will be original documents written on papyrus and other materials such as potsherd (ostraca) and wood which have been preserved in the low-humidity environment of Egypt’s Nile Valley. These are conventionally referred to by the generic description ‘papyri’, which should be understood in what follows to refer to any document written in ink on a portable surface. These papyri preserve a wide range of documents of everyday life, such as petitions, receipts, contracts and letters. Most are written in Greek, which was the language of administration and elite culture in Roman Egypt inherited from the preceding Graeco-Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty. Greek continued to be used for such purposes in the early years of the Islamic period before its supersession by Arabic. Coptic, the Egyptian vernacular written in Greek characters, also began to be used in the Late Roman period for documenting everyday life, yet has been less studied in this regard.

Within the corpus of documentary papyri, the project focuses on duplicate documents on papyrus: those of which two or more copies survive. The starting point is the corpus of duplicate papyri established by Bruce Nielsen, which we will update as we progress.

Key Issues

Education, Administration, and Literature

Even a cursory glance at Greek or Coptic manuscripts from first millennium CE Egypt informs the viewer that different styles of handwriting were used, largely for different purposes: one may contrast the formal uncials (somewhat like capital letters) of literary texts, and the cursive, often ligatured, scripts in which administrative and private documents were written (compare modern ‘running-writing’). Beyond these different styles of handwriting may stand separate educational modes. To some extent, we may witness here specialisation which takes place during a ‘professional’ career (which need not imply a formal title or payment for the one undertaking it). The project leverages close attention to scribal behaviour into observation of the relationships between scribal practice within administrative and private contexts, with the expectation that in the future, contrasts may also be possible with scribes who produced literary texts.

The centrality of scribal practice

Scribal activity in pre-typographic societies – and certainly in Roman and Early Islamic Egypt – assumed a pivotal role: advanced bureaucracies rely on scribes for a workable administration, just as the subjects of their power rely on those who can write to interact with it. Literary culture needs to be copied for effective propagation beyond the generation of its creator. Power and culture require script: this project illuminates one aspect of how the often-invisible figures at the centre of this worked.

Documentary rather than literary texts

The close study of scribal behaviour in antiquity has largely been prosecuted via study of so-called ‘literary texts’, those copied for their inherent value as literature. Such studies have mainly focused on explicating the manuscript tradition of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, but have also taken in Classical texts. This project reaches beyond the literary realm to the everyday world of the ancient scribe. It does so in part to better illuminate the quotidian and sub-altern scribal activities on which the tradition rested, but also because documentary texts offer a better opportunity to identify the conditions under which texts were produced and the practices by which copies were made; a better opportunity to observe the copyist at work. The workings of the scriptorium, the location in which literary copying in a religious context took place, are relatively well known, but the equivalent situation for the drafting and reproduction of administrative texts and private documents is not well understood: this project will contribute to explicating these settings.

Visual analysis, not just textual context

The project innovates by paying close visual attention to the signs of scribal activity and textual reproduction. In the past, this has largely been assessed by observing orthographic details (spelling, phonology, morphology), sometimes only on the basis of the edited text. The present study is based on direct examination of all relevant texts in the original or on high-quality images. The phenomena we seek must be conceived of as encompassing more than mere orthographic variation: they include all aspects of the visual encoding of text.

Phenomena, not ‘error’

In the language we use to describe the data, and the way we collect it, we eschew the language of ‘error’, ‘inconsistency’ and ‘idiosyncrasy’ which is characteristically used to describe scribal practice which deviates from pre-conceived norms. We will collect and analyse data in neutral terms, without making assumptions about the level of scribal training, or the cause of any particular phenomenon. Our opening hypothesis is that beneath what has generally been conceived of as a wildly varying and undifferentiated mass of scribal phenomena stand trends which represent the aspirations that underpin and regulate scribal production, and that these can be classified and identified.

Beyond the dichotomy between dictation and visual copying

Much previous scholarship on textual reproduction in antiquity has concentrated on arguing for dictation or visual copying as the dominant means by which texts were copied. Much of this has relied on intuitive assessments of the relative efficiency of dictation, rather than scientific observation of manuscripts. Recent scholarship on reading and copying which stresses the possibility of a single scribe reading aloud the text s/he has read as s/he writes it problematises this distinction, and creates the intellectual background for the present project’s assessment of documents without preconceptions on the mechanics of scribal practice.

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