Gnomologia on the web

Everyone knows that the Arabs had collections of the “sayings of the poets and philosophers” with which they bored each other at those lengthy dinner parties during the middle ages while they were waiting for the crusades to begin.  Few perhaps realise that collections of this kind actually start with the Greeks, and are extant in substantial chunks from the 3rd century on.

The sayings are mostly bogus, but some creep into editions of fragments, probably by mistake.  The sayings change shape, as the various editors “improved” them for wit and delivery.  They change author too!  And they exist in Greek, in Syriac, and in Arabic, and probably in other languages also.   In fact they constitute “pop literature” — a literary form used for enjoyment by people who should have been cleaning toilets or enrolling at the academy.  They’re a pig to work on, and getting a critical text is a nightmare.

In the past, scholars have recognised that the world needs to be protected from these things, and have cunningly named the subject “gnomologia”.  Literally it means “wisdom sayings” — but hey, that would make too much sense and might attract unwanted attention.  The term “gnomologia” is just the thing to make most people go cross-eyed and move quickly on.

Another ploy has been to have only German scholars work on it, and get them to do it a century ago in obscure publications, usually without translation.  After all, if you provide a translation, who knows who might start looking at this stuff?  It doesn’t bear thinking about.

In this way this material has remained largely unexplored except by specialists.  And thank goodness, for it combines tedium with inauthenticity in a manner not normally found outside the speechs of Episcopalian bishops.

Charlotte Roueché of Kings College London has unfortunately broken through all this and started the SAW project — Sharing Ancient Wisdoms.  She’s linked up with Denis Searby, who published a massive Greek collection, the Corpus Parisinum, and who broke with tradition and actually provided a translation.  (Shocking!)  She’s also roped in some experts in Arabic to get stuck into that area as well.  The idea is to use web-based technology to explore the lot and publish them online:

With the support of a team at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, and the Cente for e-Research at King’s, Charlotte Roueché will be working with experts on such collections in Greek (Denis Searby, of Uppsala) and in Arabic (Stephan Prochazka and Elvira Wakelnig, of Vienna). The aim is to publish several collections online, using technology to express and display their relationships – with the ancient texts on which they drew, with later texts which drew on them, and also with one another, since collections were frequently translated.

It all looks very bad for the old way of doing things.  Soon people will actually be able to learn about this form of literature, and start to relate it, as a source, to the classical and patristic tradition.  Whatever will become of us?

But enough joking.  Dr Roueché and her team are doing something that has needed doing for a century at least.  Everything they touch will be of value.  I hope the results will be freely accessible online.  Few enough people are interested in these curious texts anyway.

I myself commissioned translations of some Arabic Christian collections of these things; enough to realise their nature.  I shall offer these to the project.

(via: David Meadows)

UPDATE (6/5/14): Updated link to website of SAW.

2 Responses to “Gnomologia on the web”


  1. Maureen

    Ooh! Quotable quotes! Hurrah!

  2. Carnivalesque « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

    […] note, for example, the availability of a new database of Ancient Greek epigraphic epigrams, greeted sardonically by Roger Pearse at his eponymous weblog (with a tip of the solar topee to Muhlberger’s World […]



css.php