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.


Al-Majdalus translation completed

Some may remember that I commissioned a translation of the Commentary on the Nicene Creed by al-Majdalus, an Arabic Christian writer of uncertain date and affiliation, but probably a 10th century Melkite.  The text has never been published, but I obtained a microfilm of a manuscript from Sainte-Joseph University in Beirut.

I wanted to make it accessible because he might mention a saying attributed to Zoroaster in it; “whoever does not eat my body and drink my blood, the same does not have salvation.”  This saying is from the collections of sayings attributed to pagan philosophers and predicting the coming of Christ.

It seems that the translator has almost completed the translation (he has also transcribed it), a couple of words aside.  I’m looking forward to reading it!  It does indeed include some sayings from Hermes and Aristotle of this kind, although not Zoroaster as far as I can see.


Wit and wisdom in the ancient world

Last night I read a truly splendid article by R. Van Den Broek, Four Coptic Fragments of a Greek Theosophy, Vigiliae Christianae, 32 (1978), 118-42.  It’s on JSTOR here.  If you have JSTOR access, don’t try to read it on-screen, because it will make your eyes hurt; print it on paper and read it that way.

What’s great about it, I hear you ask?  Well, the first three pages provide a really good overview in English of a subset of gnomologia; ancient collections of pagan prophecies predicting the coming of Christ.  Most of these have never been translated into English, and all are  hard to access and understand.

It seems that in late antiquity, as the temples were being demolished, the Christians of the period justified this to educated pagans by appealing to quotations from the philosophers predicting that the temples would fail and become unnecessary. 

This gives us a date for the origin of this kind of literature; the 5th century, when paganism was far from dead among the aristocracy, and such arguments could be useful.   The ‘quotes’ themselves tend to be a bit bogus; dodgy people like Hermes Trismegistus are invoked.  Oracles of the gods themselves are included. 

There’s a few of these sayings in Cyril of Alexandria’s Contra Iulianum.  But the big 5th century collection is an anonymous Greek “Theosophy”.  This is lost, except for a longish chunk of book 11, containing quotes from the Sybilline oracles.  But a long abstract has been preserved, known as the Tübingen Theosophy and published by H. Erbse in Theosophorum Graecorum Fragmenta.  (This is not one of those monster tomes, but a smallish book).  This tells us about the content.  The first few books were dedicated to describing the true faith, and the next few to predictions of Christ of this kind.

The fragment of the “Theosophy” tells us that the quotes come partly from Lactantius.  As might be expected, manuscripts of the fathers are the main source, and probably even glosses on those manuscripts were used as if by pagan authors — after all, without quotation marks, who could be sure?

Later collections play down oracles by the gods — now relegated to history — but instead start using pagan predictions to parallel those from the Old Testament.  An example of this is John ibn Saba’s Precious Pearl.

The actual research in the article is four more bits of ‘prophecy’, this time from Coptic sources.  Sebastian Brock published some from Syriac.  My own site contains text and translation of a few from Arabic. 

Sayings literature was a popular genre.  Consequently maxims and sayings spread all over the literate world.  It would be interesting to learn whether any made their way into Persian or Indian!


Ancient sayings literature

I collect joke books.  Most evenings I get home, tired, and I’m not really in the mood to read something heavy.  Instead I pick up a joke book, open it anywhere, read a few lines and always find something to make me smile.

Anyone who has bought joke books will be familiar with the way that the exact wording can change.  The contents of any book will vary, depending on what the author had access to.  Some jokes are attributed to famous people in one book, and are anonymous in others. 

Collections of wit and wisdom are not modern inventions.  Someone has invented the horrible term ‘gnomologia’ – literally ‘words of wisdom’ – to describe these things.  That’s enough to put anyone off!  But it means the same.  These are ancient collections of wit and wisdom.

I’ve been reading Denis Searby’s edition of the Corpus Parisinum (although the library have seen fit to only send me volume 1, the Greek text!).  I am struck by the way in which the contents of this monstrous 9th century collection of sayings, anecdotes, apophthegms (a long word for ‘bits of sage wisdom’) follow these rules also.

Joke books are a low-brow form of literature in our day, but a very popular one.  Likewise collections of sayings and wit were a popular form of literature, and occur all over the place in the manuscripts.  It is worth considering that one of Caxton’s first publications in English was a translation of an Arabic collection of wit and wisdom.  Doubtless he printed it primarily because he believed that he could sell it readily.

Some versions of the collection omit some or all of the names of the authors to whom each saying or story is attributed (the jargon for this is the ‘lemma’).  But clearly it is the wit of the saying which is important, not the specific person as a rule.  We would never criticise a joke book author for changing attribution, if it made the joke funnier, after all.

As the Greek language changed, sayings had to be rewritten.  An archaic word might dull the point of some saying; it would have to be rephrased.  Translations into Syriac and Arabic were initially very literal.  But quickly they would be rephrased or rewritten in order to work in their new context.  Impact is everything with a joke or anecdote; without it, it loses its point.  Unfunny jokes are not repeated.

Modern jokes are usually delivered orally.  There is thus an oral stage to transmission, particularly with the Arabic material, where the culture favours quotations of sententious wisdom and so is favourable to exactly this form of literature.

Other volumes are collections of anecdotes.  After-dinner stories can be  bought in most bookshops.  Again, Bar Hebraeus compiled a volume of anecdotes, published by E. Wallis Budge as “The laughable stories.”  These follow the same sorts of rules.  Many a modern story is attributed to Churchill, or Oscar Wilde.  Arabic ones tended to end up attributed to Aristotle.

Dr Searby makes a couple of interesting points about the transmission of these works.  For one thing, if we are trying to produce a critical edition, precisely what is the autograph?  In what sense is there an original?

Secondly he suggests that, within the limits given above, the transmission of the content of sayings is quite faithful. 

It’s clearly a mistake to treat these sayings collections as if they were literary works like a poem or a history.  Their nature means that they must be transmitted differently, the text is expected to be altered, is expected to have additional material added.  There is no fraud or dishonesty in this; merely the nature of the genre.

PS: After writing this I began to read the “Laughable stories”.  Saying 56: “A rich man wrote above the door of his house, ‘No evil thing may enter.’  Diogenes said, ‘Fine; but how is your wife to come in, then?'”