Asterix, manuscripts, and the Bibliothèque Nationale Français

In Asterix and the Normans, the Gauls encounter the Normans, who know no fear but would like to.  They are invited to listen to the village bard, the aptly named Cacafonix.  After his first number, the Normans look pained.  “By Thor!” says one; “By Odin!” another; “Bite on the bullet!” says a third.  A few more numbers, and they run!  Recommended, actually, this one.

What brought this on, I hear you cry?  Well, I want to get images of a manuscript of the History of the Arabic Christian historian, Al-Makin.  The British Library let me down when I ordered some from them, so I’ve asked the BNF in Paris for help.  The invoice arrived today.  For Ms. Arabe 294 and 295, total number of pages 648, the price is going to be…. 234 euros!  OUCH!

I’ve paid it anyway.  I have to have it to progress.  But this is serious money.  Each page costs 26c from the first ms and (mysteriously) 36c from the second.  But of course it hardly costs that much to make these copies. It certainly doesn’t cost a different amount for each of the two halves! Greed, I fear, is responsible for this bill. And all these images, I suspect, will be low quality monochrome. It’s enough to make any digital camera owner spit!

I know that I have banged on about this before, but this is serious stuff.  The medieval manuscripts are the raw stuff of scholarship on all ancient texts.  If we can’t access the dratted things — and a bill of 234 euros per manuscript is no different to refusing access, for most people — then we can’t work.  This is particularly bad for unpublished texts, which means most of Arabic Christian and Syriac and Armenian and…

The fact is that these institutions are making money off this.  Come on, you scholars; clamp down on it!


Getting hold of manuscripts of the Arabic historian Al-Makin

We all know that Shlomo Pines published an exotic version of the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus, telling of the events of the life of Christ.  This he tells us he got from the 10th century Arabic Christian historian, Agapius.  But on closer reading, he says that he reconstructed the text of Agapius at this point using the 13th century Arabic Christian historian Girgis Al-Makin (George Elmacin).  This hasn’t ever been published, never mind translated. 

The text is in two halves, according to Georg Graf’s handbook, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur vol. 2, p.348-351.  The first half covers history to the reign of Heraclius, divided into 120 sections on ‘important people’.  The second half covers history from the Arab invasions to his own time.

I’d like to get a copy of a manuscript of this work, and see if I can get the portion on Jesus translated.   Graf tells us that there is a manuscript in the Vatican (Vat. ar. 169, 1686 AD, on ff. 1r-194r); another in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Bodl. ar. christ. Nicoll. 47, 1 & 2 = Bodl. 316, 1646 AD), which also has a handwritten Latin translation of the end of part 1 and all of part 2; another in the British Library (or. 7564, AD 1280); another in Manchester (ar. 239, 18th century, but incomplete and breaking off at 1118/9 AD); another in Cairo (Coptic Museum Hist. 266, AD 1893); yet another in Cairo (Coptic Patriarchate Hist. 17, 18th century); one in the Sbath collection wherever that is now (Fihris 80 & 81); and finally one somewhere in the Orthodox Library in Aleppo between the wars, mentioned by L. Cheiko.

That sounds a lot – eight copies.  But the Vatican library is closed, and emails are being ignored.  The Bodleian is going through a greedy-nasty phase, and wants me to pay some enormous sum so they can make colour images for themselves but only supply low-grade monochrome images to me.  The microfilm of the British Library manuscript only covers part 2, and the leaves are said to be disarranged anyway.  The John Rylands Library in Manchester also demanded some huge and prohibitive sum for their partial manuscript.  Manuscripts in Cairo are inaccessible; a set of microfilms in the USA likewise, for practical purposes.  The location of the other two is really unknown.

Here we are in 2009; yet a researcher can’t get a copy of stuff held by state institutions.  This is a ridiculous situation, surely?

There are also manuscript copies of each half.  Perhaps the answer is to obtain some of these.  There are three of part 1 in Paris, for instance, and it should be possible to obtain copies, I would have thought. 

PS: The great thing about the Bibliotheque Nationale Francais is that they have scanned their catalogues and put them online.  A quick search, and I find that Mss. Arab. 294 and 295 should cover the whole text.  294 is 250+ folios in length, tho.  Less good is the prices demanded for colour digital images, which are basically free to make.  The prices are prohibitive, which is very silly.  I’ve been driven to ask for a duplicate of a microfilm in PDF form, for which they will charge 50 euros each (!).  Even that is a ridiculous price for what basically costs half an hour of staff time.  When will this ceaseless greed stop?


Al-Makin II

Satan’s Servants — the British Library — have sent me the microfilm of Ms. Or. 7564 on CD that I ordered, and indeed fairly quickly (which sort of suggests that they had it on disk already, and all they had to do was take my money).

The images are about what you’d expect.  How usable they are I don’t yet know.  Now I need an Arabist with time on their hands!


Al-Makin in Wikipedia

I’ve been gathering information on Al-Makin, and updating the Wikipedia article, for lack of anywhere better to stuff the information.  A scholar has written to me about Al-Makin, who looks as if he would like to do a critical edition.  But with 80 mss, it’s fairly intimidating!


Elmacin (Al-Makin) 1

I’m not sure where this will take me, but I’ve taken a first step to doing some work on the World Chronicle (al-Majmu` al-Mubarak) of George Elmacin (Jirgis Al-Makin, Ibn Amid); I’ve ordered a copy of the text. 

In fact I’ve ordered a reproduction from the British Library of their manuscript, Ms. Or. 7564 (218 folios).  The reproduction is a digital scan of a monochrome microfilm (don’t laugh); and unusually for the BL, is at a reasonable price of around £60 ($120).  What the quality is like I don’t yet know.  They want a month to produce it, which I can live with.

The work itself is in two halves; the first in 116 biographies of major figures from the Creation down to the 11th year of Heraclius; the second is the “Historia Saracenica” edited with a Latin translation by Erpenius back in the 17th century.  I don’t know if I can get hold of a copy of the latter, or whether I need to yet.  A Latin translation of the end of the first part and all of the second exists in manuscript, unpublished, in the Bodleian, but their current policies on reproductions mean that this is inaccessible to me.

Now I’d like to pay someone to make a transcription and translation of the lot.  At the moment I have no idea what that would cost, except that any text that comes on 436 pages won’t be cheap.  I also have to consider the credit crunch, and whether someone like myself who works as a freelance can afford to fund an expensive long-running project when I don’t have work guaranteed beyond Christmas.

So I’m not sure what will happen here.  But let’s travel hopefully, cautiously and see. 

I think the first desideratum is to get a list of the 116 figures for whom Elmacin gives a  biography.  That shouldn’t cost too much, surely.  One problem may be that these names will be rubricated in the manuscript, i.e. done in red ink, which won’t be visible on a monochrome microfilm (we may fairly curse those who in the age of the digital camera force us to work with this obsolete technology!).  It might be possible to get images on DVD of the two Beirut mss from the HMML site for a relatively small sum, and these might fill the gap.

The next item, I think, would be a translation of the life of Christ.  This is the bit that Shlomo Pines used for his text of the peculiar Testimonium Flavianum that he attributed to “Agapius”, so should be interesting, to get a feel for whether that biography really drew on Agapius.

That should take us up beyond Christmas, and give me a better idea about the text, the costs, and the economic situation.  In 2002-3 most freelancers like myself were out of work for a year.  I devoutly hope the same doesn’t happen this time.