Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Oft-Mislaid History of Alexander of Macedon

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library at Yale.

There's a really good post past the jump, so keep reading:

I had requested in advance the manuscript, a Hebrew Alexander romance, that I was there to study; but when I arrived, the librarians couldn't find the digital record of it. And so I found myself insisting to the reference librarian that not only does this manuscript exist, but that I've used it in the Beinecke in the past! She looked at me a little pityingly when she said, "Well, I'm inclined to believe you." By some miracle, one of the pages was able to find it, but I have a very uneasy feeling that I may never see this manuscript again. If there is no electronic record, if the physical book is ever mislaid, that's it. I hope, of course, that I'm wrong.

The feeling of unease is magnified, perhaps unreasonably, by the manuscript's checkered history of disappearing and reappearing. This is a manuscript whose whereabouts in the first two hundred years or so after it was copied are currently unknown; it first shows up in Europe in the private collection of Daniel Itzig who was — get this! — titular Court Jew under Wilhelm II of Prussia, and after his death is purchased by the Ashkenazi Beit Din in London, which places it in the library collection of Jews' College (now the London School of Jewish Studies). LSJS sold off its library collection in 1996 at auction. That was the state of affairs I found when I went to look for the manuscript in 2009 while beginning my dissertation work. When I saw that it had been sold at auction, I assumed that it was sitting in someone's Park Avenue living room and that I'd never have access. By sheer luck (or really good shoe-leather research), I found a dissertation on Hebrew and Arabic Alexander romances that was written after the sale and that referred to the manuscript by its former shelfmark, Jews' College London 145 as well as its new call number, which happened to be for the Beinecke. Not only was it in a research collection, it was in an easily-accessible one that was already familiar to me! I've worked from it twice in New Haven before yesterday.

Nevertheless, the number of near misses and that feeling of uncertainty that results further validated what had been my main goal of the day to begin with, namely to take a full set of photographs to work from while writing chapter three of my book. It exists in microfilm form, courtesy of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, and I have, of course, worked with the object itself, and there is a decent edition. That said, I wanted to have a set of photographs to work from regularly rather than the scan of the copy of the microfilm printout; and I'm mostly interested in paratextual elements specific to this manuscript.*

I also wanted this to be a test photography run for my (hopefully) upcoming trip to Oxford to consult with three manuscripts at the Bodleian that all have really problematic editions and where working from the manuscript, and then from photographs once I'll have left, will actually make a real difference in how I can understand the text. I've gotten decent results with a nineteenth-century book and my iPhone camera, but I didn't know how well it would work with a manuscript. And I also just wanted to see how well my digital camera that is not also a phone would work.

The iPhone pictures didn't come out especially well, in large measure because my hands were shaking quite a bit. I think it might be okay absent that factor. Nevertheless, bear in mind also that in a library, one is generally not permitted to use flash, external lighting or even a tripod to hold the camera completely steady. The bad and the less bad from the iPhone:


I started out shooting with my digital camera at an aperture opening of f8 and shutter speed of 1/30 of a second. 

Then I decided, given the shakiness of my hands and the low light, to prioritize shutter speed since, theoretically, you don't need much depth of field (which is what you lose when you increase your aperture size to compensate for the faster shutter speed) to shoot a flat page. So I dropped down to f2.8 and 1/250th of a second. And it's interesting. The images are mostly much crisper, except that anywhere that the page was even a little bit curled in towards the binding (mostly in the case of the catchwords at the bottom of the page), there is a pretty dramatic loss of focus.

So given how good the images at f8 were, I probably won't drop below there in the future. (I also won't try to take pictures after moving two boxes full of twenty volumes of medieval Arabic dictionary to eliminate the shaky hands issue. This is likely not to be a regular problem, fortunately.) There is also a possibility that it's just not possible yet to get really readable images from damaged manuscripts, but I'm hoping, oddly, at this point that it was actually just me having an off-day with my shutter finger.

The manuscript isn't especially interesting to look at if you're not interested in the text, but there are some really lovely features. For example, in some places it's really easy to see the ruling that the scribe put in so that he could write in straight lines.

And I couldn't help but notice a modern counterpoint to that while I was photographing.

In two instances the scribe seems to have gotten bored and doodled around the catchwords.

The pages of a manuscript are typically numbered by sheet, with each face being called recto and verso. In other words, on the first sheet, you would have page 1-recto and then you'd flip it over and have 1-verso before going to the next, separate sheet, which would contain faces 2-recto and 2-verso. The pages of this manuscript, though, are numbered by face. So where you would expect to see 1-recto, 1-verso, 2-recto and 2-verso, you just see 1, 2, 3 and 4. You can tell, though, that the numbering was done later and by a different hand. After the colophon, the scribe writes: "Folia scripta, sunt 35." This shows that he thought of there being 35 folios rather than 70 pages, as the numbering indicates. And when you compare the 35 in that notation with the 35 that indicates the page of that number, it becomes very clear that the same person did not write the two numbers.

I've loaded the images onto my iPad and can now test it out in a research, rather than a pedagogical, context. Again, with the images being a little sub-par, I'm finding it hard to tell how good it is. The good pictures are amazing, and the less good ones — well, this isn't a magic bullet. What I can't yet tell, and won't be able to without photographing more manuscripts or even this one again under better conditions, is whether it's possible to photograph a manuscript with damage like this one has (tide line a little less than a quarter of the way down the page, and water damage to the MS in that portion) in such a way that it will yield readable photos, or whether damaged manuscripts aren't really helped at all by this treatment. So, to be continued.

Spending a day like this makes me wistful that I no longer have the constant, right-down-the-street access that I had as an undergraduate, especially since, though I did use the resource at the Beinecke in college, I'm much better equipped to do so at this point. That said, it's good to have left. Ironically, this completely fascinating manuscript is one that I never would have encountered if I'd not had the broader perspective that I have gained since.

*Here's where I'm coming up against the blogging problem of wanting to not scoop myself. I'm not really prepared to post pictures of the most interesting bits of the manuscript, even if the post suffers a little for it. I'm not sure if that's the right decision or not.


  1. Knowing you the way I do (there *is* a song for every occasion), I have to assume Beinecke has a blanket no photography with tripod policy. As mss. are probably more subject to damage from tripod feet and cameras beind laid down upon them than are cuneiform tablets, it's not surprising. That said, you might try a trick from tablet photography, specifically of the sections of the tablet that, due to the curvature of the object, fall away from the plane parallel to the "shutter screen" of the camera: realign your camera parallel to the curvature of those sections that curl in. In theory, you could then cut/paste digital images together, but even for personal study, you'd have the full text minus much of the distortion.

    Nice work, and so glad you had sunshine streaming through the marble. I, too, love and miss Beinecke!

  2. It was the Rolling Stones who sang "Blanket No Photography With a Tripod Policy," right? (I think I missed the cultural reference there, suffice to say...) But yes, Beinecke does have one, as do most libraries, including NYPL. (Although frankly, you're much more likely to inadvertently put your camera down on a MS if it's not attached to a tripod, but I'm, thankfully, not running the circus.) I seriously never thought I'd need tablet photography tricks, but I'll give it a shot. Thanks much!