Zumthor in Zābul: Western Editorial Theory and the Shāhnāma

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Mahmoud Omidsalar;

(John F. Kennedy Memorial Library California State University, Los Angeles)

Artist: Muhammad al-Qiwam al-Shirazi (calligrapher) and Taj al-Din Haydar al-Shirazi (illuminator)
Illuminated colophon from the Shahnama, with poetry and illumination by Taj al-Din Haydar in the margins. Signed Muhammad al-Qiwam of Shiraz and Taj al-Din Haydar. Shiraz, 1562-1583. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 14.692
Date between 1562 and 1583

In his contribution to David Greetham’s Scholarly Editing, A Guide to Research, published in 1995, Michael G. Carter who contributed the essay on editing of Arabic literature to the collection, makes several problematical observations. Some of these are:

The history of editing in Arabic is indirectly covered in the history either of scholarship or of printing ... While it might be objected that printing and editing are only distantly related, it is a fact that Arabic, like other exotics, could not have been published in the West at all without the creation of special type fonts; hence book production and editing necessarily go hand in hand. It is appropriate to observe that conventional editing on Western lines has nonetheless been energetically and sometimes brilliantly carried out in Arab and Muslim countries ever since the introduction of printing in the Arab world, in the nineteenth century [my emphasis]1.

This view of classical Muslim editorial scholarship, although prevalent, is simply misleading. The incomparable influence of the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition in Islam helped focus the energy and attention of Muslim scholars on texts and the accuracy of their transmission from very early on. Accounts of Muslim scholars’ efforts and theoretical contributions to textual scholarship are scattered throughout the surviving historical and literary texts. Of course, it is true that a systematic history of Muslim contribution to textual scholarship remains unwritten; however, glimpses of this long and respectable tradition may be had in the writings of a number of contemporary authorities.2 Those who distort the words of the holy writ are mentioned in the Qur’an (2; 75, 4: 46). The great theologian, Ibn Hanbal (164-241/780-855) reports traditions according to which the accuracy of the text of the scripture was checked during the lifetime of the Prophet (al-Musnad, no. 2449, 3001). Regardless of one’s doctrinal beliefs, one must admit that concern for textual accuracy may be dated to the time of the Prophet and shortly thereafter. Later, in the 2nd/8th century, al-Jāhiz speaks about the difficulty of making critical editions: mašaqqastu tashīb al-kutub, and the need for producing critical editions of texts: wujūb al-͑ināya bi-tanqīh al-mu ͑allafāt.3 In the 3rd and 4th century hijrī, in a section on collation, al-Rāmhurmuzī (c. 260-360/874-971) quotes Hišām ibn Urwa (d. 146/764) to have said that upon completing the copying of a document, his father asked him, “Did you finish writing?” He responds “Yes.” Then, his father asks, “Did you check what you wrote against the original?” When he answers in the negative, his father says: “Then you did not really finish it. Then you did not write my boy.4

Aside from scattered information about textual scholarship, we know about a number of classical Muslim authors who wrote works that were entirely devoted to the intricacies of textual editing. Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889)had written a book entitled, Tashīf al-͑Ulamā’ which has, unfortunately, been lost. After him, Abūbakr al-Sūlī (d. 355/946) and many others composed books and treatises on the subject. One of the most systematic of these is al-Tanbīh ͑Alā Hudūth al-Tashīf, by the famous Hamza ibn al-Hasan al-Isbahānī (d. 360/971). Fortunately, copies of this text have survived and a new edition of it, together with a Persian and English translation, is underway in Iran.

In spite of all this, western histories of editing make no mention of the contributions of Muslim scholars to the art of editing. They typically begin with an account of the editorial activities of the Greek scholars of antiquity, take a detour through medieval scriptoria and the efforts of the Renaissance scholars, and end up with the work of the modern European editors. The Eurocentrism of these histories is, of course, understandable because most of them are concerned with the development of the discipline in the West. What is hardly understandable is the tendency of some scholars of Arabic and Persian to confuse the cultures of classical Islam with that of medieval Europe and to try to apply editorial techniques that work for medieval European literatures to classical Arabic or Persian texts.

The almost willful disregard of the contributions of classical Muslim sources to textual scholarship is compounded by a propensity to understand and interpret the cultural history of classical Islam, including its textual scholarship, in European terms. Arab and Persian poets and authors are called “medievalˮ and their works are interpreted as though they were medieval European works. Thus, editorial techniques that may be suitable for editing medieval European texts are advertised as equally suitable for editing classical Persian and Arabic literary monuments. I will provide a specific example of what I mean, by considering a relatively recent suggestion that Iran’s national epic, the Shāhnāma should be edited using the same techniques employed in editing medieval European epics. But before doing that, let me briefly explain why classical Persian literature cannot be considered “medieval.ˮ

Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE to barbarian invaders, Western Europe entered a period of its history, which is commonly called “the Middle Agesˮ in English. This invasion marked a momentous occasion in the history of Western Europe, and the social and cultural circumstances that resulted from it exerted a significant influence upon the course of Europe’s development. The medieval period of European history is generally understood to be a period of intellectual depression stretching from the establishment of the barbarian supremacy in the fifth century to the revival of learning in the Renaissance.5 Petrarch (1304-1374 CE) and other Renaissance humanists believed that the human culture that had reached its zenith in the civilisations of Greece and Rome, collapsed “with the onset of Christianity and barbarism, and had only revived in their own time.6ˮ The European Middle Ages brought Rome’s beautiful and great urban centres, her government, courts of law, schools, libraries, infrastructure, and much of what marked her civilisation to a virtual standstill. The reasons for all this need not detain us here. What is important for our purposes is that generally speaking, the medieval period in European history coincided with the onset of the long autumn of that continent’s cultural life; an autumn that lasted nearly a thousand years. During most of this period, literary civilization barely existed. Literacy continued only in a few ecclesiastical centres such as Benedictine monasteries. Most of Western Europe was cut off from the thriving intellectual and economic life of the Eastern Mediterranean that followed the expansion of Islam in the seventh century7 This was especially the case in the early part of the Middle Ages (475-1000 CE), which is dubbed the Dark Ages, and is often described as “a time of despair [and of] disintegration of the Mediterranean world and the collapse of [Europe’s] political, cultural, and economic unity.8” This period was also marked by a sharp decline in Latin literature, and near complete absence of national literatures. This is why the Renaissance humanists understood the terms “Middle Ages” or “Dark Ages” to refer to that period of European history marked by a general decline of arts, sciences, and political institutions in Western Europe.

The Middle East did not experience this kind of dreadful barbarisation. In other words, the Muslim world did not have a “medieval” phase or a “Dark Ages” of its own during these same centuries. The tripartite division of European history into the classical, the medieval, and the modern periods is exclusively applicable to Western Europe. As the great American medievalist Joseph Reese Strayer (1904-1987) pointed out, the medieval civilisation is “a civilisation which, in its complete form, covers only Western Europe [my italics]. It has little influence on Eastern Europe and even less on Western Asia and Northern Africa.9” Strayer’s view is reiterated by W. F. H. Nicolaisen, who writes:

The notion of a chronological Middle Age, with its concomitant epithet medieval, is, in its hint at a tripartite temporal division, essentially European in origin and application. Any exercise insisting on a double vision in matters concerning oral tradition in a medieval setting ..., is consequently almost by definition, predestined to concentrate on and perhaps even to deal exclusively with, the European scene.10

In contrast to Western Europe whose civilisation had collapsed into the Dark Ages following the barbarian invasions, the Iranian civilisation, at about the same time, had entered its golden age and was well on its way to reach its most productive phase. Western Europe and the Muslim Middle East therefore, experienced opposite outcomes following the invasions that radically changed their social and cultural circumstances. The barbarian invasions ravaged the Roman civilisation of Western Europe, while the Muslim invasion unleashed intellectual forces that laid dormant in the ancient domain of the Sassanid Empire. These radically different invasions produced two drastically different cultures. At almost exactly the same time as Western Europe was experiencing her Dark Ages, the civilisations of the Middle East, including the Iranian civilisation, were undergoing a revolution in science, technology, and the arts largely as a result of the Muslim invasion. Therefore, inferences drawn from lives or habits of medieval European authors may not be used to deduce anything about the lives or habits of classical Muslim litterateurs. The assumption that any classical Arabic or Persian work or literature may be considered a “medieval” work simply because its author’s lifetime coincided with the period that is called the “Middle Ages” in Western historiography is flawed. Naturally, no editorial techniques that are devised for dealing with peculiarities of medieval European literatures may necessarily be applicable to classical Persian and Arabic texts of the classical period.

Keeping this important distinction in mind, let us consider a recent suggestion that the text of Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāma (completed c. 1010 CE), may benefit from editorial techniques that were developed for medieval French epics.

It has recently been suggested that the manuscript tradition of Iran’s national epic, the Shāhnāma, may justifiably be subjected to editorial approaches that have proven efficacious in editing Middle French epics and romances. One student of the Shāhnāma writes:

The manuscripts of the poem vary enormously, especially in its most famous passages. The situation is much more like that of, say, the corpus of medieval French narrative poems than it is like that of the Homeric text. An obvious way forward would be to accept that the poem is irreducibly multitextual.11

Those who are familiar with the history of editorial theory in the West also understand that this statement contains an allusion to the work of Paul Zumthor and the mouvance movement in editing, a theory that we will examine in greater detail below. Similar views were expressed a few years earlier by another scholar:

The concept of mouvance, [...] was formulated by the medievalist Paul Zumthor. According to this formulation, medieval texts that derive from oral traditions are not a finished product, un achévement, but a text in progress, un texte en train de se faire. No matter how many times a text derived from oral traditions, is written down, it will change or move: hence the term mouvance. Following both Zumthor and Pickers, Gregory Nagy has applied the concept of mouvance to the history of the Greek Homeric text: both the papyrus fragments (from the Hellenistic and Roman periods) and the medieval manuscripts of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey preserve a number of variant readings that are demonstrably authentic from the standpoint of the formulaic system that generates Homeric diction. In any given case, where two or more authenticated variant readings are attested, Nagy argues that the editor’s task is to establish which variant was used at which historical point in the evolution of the text, not to guess which is “superior” and which is “inferior12”.

Before evaluating the relevance of these observations, let us briefly discuss Zumthor and place the concept of mouvance in its proper intellectual and historical contexts. Lacking linguistic competence in any of the medieval European languages and unable to directly consult the relevant medieval European manuscripts, I have liberally drawn on the published works of numerous Western medievalists in order to support my arguments13.

In order to understand what the term mouvance implies and how it has come to influence discussions of editorial theory in the West, we must start with classical editing. The British poet and classicist, Alfred. E. Housman (1859-1936),defined textual criticism as “the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing it14.” This definition best suits those literary works that have specific authors, because it presumes the existence of a fixed text that mirrored its author’s intentions behind all of the different surviving manuscripts of that author’s work. It also assumes that the more this fixed text is copied, the more errors enter into it, and the more errors enter the text, the farther it moves from what its author originally composed and intended to circulate. Therefore, the task of the editor is to reverse the process of corruption that has afflicted the text in order to restore it to its original undefiled state15. This is generally true for the bulk of Europe’s classical texts, especially its Greek and Latin literary monuments. Before the rise of the European vernacular literatures, since medieval Europe’s textual output was composed in Latin, it could also be edited by using the same techniques that were used for editing pre-invasion classical texts. The rise of vernacular literatures in medieval Europe, however, changed the situation drastically.

Different forms or native written European literatures in languages other than Latin began to appear roughly around the 11th and 12th centuries CE16. The texts of this new literary corpus were not fixed. They were heavily influenced by oral tradition and in fact existed somewhere between orality and textuality. A typical medieval vernacular work is a product of an interaction between orality and textuality; between written verse for readers and narrative song for singers. Carol Braun Pasternack has cleverly referred to them by using the term “inscribed texts17” because of their strong oral characteristics in order to distinguish them from standard literary traditions. Unlike the Latin texts of the earlier times, medieval vernacular works did not have stable texts and changed with every reproduction in a different way. As such, they do not easily yield to the editorial techniques that were developed for correcting Latin texts.

The mutability of the texts of medieval vernacular literature presents their editors with a number of dilemmas. One must ask oneself which version of a given text is the “correct” version and who really authored it. Since these texts were rooted in a usually sung oral tradition, and since each singer changed the song in each performance just as each copyist allowed his memory for the song to interfere with the wording of the text that he copied, does it even make sense to ask who the author was? The notions of the “author” and the “authorial text,” which implies the idea of a fixed text, were irrelevant for much of medieval Europe’s vernacular literature. Michel Foucault questioned the application of the idea of authorship to these texts in a lecture that he delivered for the Société française de philosofie in 1969. He argued that medieval European vernacular material required a different way of considering the idea of “authorship:”

The author’s junction is not universal or constant in all discourses. Even within our civilisation, the same types of texts have not always required authors; there was a time when those texts which we now call “literary” (stories, folk tales, epics, and tragedies) were accepted, circulated, and valorised without any question about the identity of their author18.

One might even suggest that the idea or the “author” dwindled with the decline of classical literature after the barbarian invasions, and remained largely dormant in Western Europe until its gradual revival around the time or the Renaissance. Chaucer’s address to his own work at the end of the Troilus and Criseyde is often cited as one of the earliest instances of the resurgence of the idea of authorial proprietorship:

Go, Litel boob, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther god thi makere yit, or that he dye,
So sende might to make in some comedye!
But, litel book, no making thow nenvie,
But subjit be to alle poesie;
And his the steppes, where as thow seest space
Virgile, Ovide. Omer, Lucan, and Stace.19

Go little book, go little tragedy,
Where God may send thy maker, ere he die,
The power to make a work of comedy;
But, little book, it’s not for thee to vie
With others, but be subject, as am I,
To poesy itself, and kiss the gracious
Footsteps of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Statius.20

Chaucer’s proprietary feelings are also implied in his admonition to his scribe, Adam, extant in only one manuscript (Cambridge Trinity College MS R. 3. 20), where he curses Adam if he does not improve the accuracy of his copying:

Adam scriveyn, if evere it thee befalle
Boece or Troylus ofr to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scale,
But after my making thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.21

Adam my scribe, if you it should ever happen
that you write Boece or Troilus anew,
may you have scabs and scales under your locks,
unless you copy in true fashion in accord with my lines.
So often I must renew your work,
and correct and rub and scrape;
And all is through your negligence and haste.22

Prior to the 14th century, authorial claims of possession and control were quite uncommon. The idea of authorial ownership of the text was not revived before the late 17th century, when the British House of Lords ruled on the case of Donaldson v. Becket, and formally addressed the question of literary property in Europe.23 But if the idea of authorship was not well developed, who created the medieval vernacular works that have survived?

Following the widespread appearance of vernacular European literature sometime after the 11th century, this literature existed as the by-product of the collective creative activities of singers, performers, and scribes, not as the fruit of the creativity of a specific person. As such, it was the intellectual property of no one. Carol Braun Pasternack’s work with Old English poetry clearly explains the situation.

Pasternack argues that modern readers are misled by the format in which Old English verse is presented to them in printed editions. Today, Old English poems appear pristinely in pages of Scholarly tomes that are laid out in a formalised configuration. They are given titles and are laid out in numbered lines that are visually divided into sentences and verse-paragraphs, with clear beginnings, middles, and ends.24 But in manuscript form, Old English poems do not have titles, and are often deficient from the beginning, middle or end:

Old English verse was inscribed to be read aloud ... [It] was considerably more dependent on the ear than on the eye. In printed poetry, especially free verse, we rely on the eye more than on the sounds of the words to scan rhythms and structures: indeed, the voice follows the eye, which watches for capitals, line divisions and punctuation. In the manuscripts of Old English verse, however, words fill the page from left to right margin, and the reader must hear the alliterative and stress patterns to sense the verse units and the syntactic rhythms to sense the clauses and periods. This method of layout requires that the reader be familiar with aural patterns and be prepared to interpret the structures of the texts.25

A similar situation exists in Old French literary texts. According to Paul Zumthor, these texts “were destined to be sung” with the rhythmic and melodic factors influencing “the textual functioning.26” It was precisely because of the important role of oral factors such as cadence, melody, etc., upon the reading of these texts, that they did not have to be laid out on the page visually. Their readers “heard” them as they read them. Therefore not only layout, but also punctuation marks, in the sense that we understand and depend on them today, were not necessary, and are in fact quite rare in actual manuscripts of Old English verse. These manuscripts, like many others in vernacular tongues, are copied as blocks of texts often in an uninterrupted chain of letters that is called scriptio continua. According to Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, to the extent that Old English texts were “inscribed texts,” they did not need punctuation because, “early readers of Old English verse read by applying oral techniques for the reception of a message to the decoding of a written text.27” They knew when to pause and when to move on because of their familiarity with the way Old English verse was sung in the oral tradition. As a result:

Inscribed texts function without authors: the poet, oral or stylus-in-hand, has left the scene, a scribe has intervened, and the language of the texts conveys the imprint of tradition rather than of an author. A significant, if ironic aspect of these “traditional” rather than “authored” texts is their openness to new constructions of texts by subsequent poets, performers or scribes, and to varied constructions of meaning by readers. This openness derives in part from the way in which the texts couple features of the oral and the written.28

Given the cultural context of the vernacular literature of medieval Europe therefore, the readers, the performers, and the scribes or these texts heard them in their heads, and interfered with them as they read, performed, or copied them. Naturally, these features of medieval European vernacular texts, profoundly influenced the way they were produced. It is true that like every other text, manuscripts of medieval European poems were copied by scribes. However, because the medieval scribe was a product of an oral culture, he “reproduced” his exemplar differently from the way Muslim scribes copied their texts. Using his familiarity with the system of oral formulas on which he had cut his teeth, the European scribe did not passively copy. He also improvised while copying29. Therefore, medieval European poems did not have a “fixed” text, because each scribe was at the same time the author of his own redaction or scribal version of what he copied.30 As a result, medieval European poetic texts lack fixity and are inherently variable. To the extent that these texts survive in specific written manuscripts, they belong to the literary tradition. However, to the extent that their layout, their enormous variability, and the cultural circumstances under which they were produced, were deeply influenced by orality, they are “oral” texts. This dual characteristic of the vernacular literature of medieval Europe has led some scholars to place medieval verse somewhere between fully oral and fully written. Alger N. Doane, for example, writes of Old English:

That [Old English poetry] is writing at all is accidental, extrinsic to its main existence in ongoing oral traditions; hence it was never intended to feed into a lineage of writing31.

One must therefore conclude that the vernacular literature of medieval Europe was a group product, created by different people who contributed to its creation during the processes of copying, performance, or recitation. As texts they were inherently variable, because there was neither an author nor a fixed form to anchor them. Therefore, it is reasonable to observe that their scribes participated in transmitting these poems, and that these texts may be considered products of a collaborative effort among their “authors” and their scribes - who “drawing on their familiarity with the techniques of formulaic composition” recomposed them during copying32. They were further interfered with during performance by those who read or sang them aloud for others. In other words, the collaborative aspect of this poetry’s transmission, in which the scribe, the author, and the performer/reader, were joined together, renders the notions of “authorial intention,” and “the fixed text” irrelevant33. For this reason, students of medieval European literatures may justifiably assess the variants that they find in their manuscripts differently from the way the editors of literary texts assess their variants.

Those familiar with reproduction of texts in classical Iran know that none of the European conditions applied. Once a classical Persian text was composed by its specific and often well-known author, it was done. From that point on, copying only moved it away from its definitive form, much as classical Latin texts were moved away from their archetypal form by repeated copying. Therefore, claims that the text of the Shāhnāma resembles medieval French texts in any way are baseless. But for now, let us stay with the fluidity of vernacular texts in medieval Europe and consider the implication of textual instability in Old French literature in order to understand better the term mouvance.

French medievalists used the term mouvance to refer to the textual variability encountered in their manuscripts. The scholar most closely associated with the popularisation and promotion of this concept was the Swiss medievalist, Paul Zumthor (1915-1995), who taught at the universities of Amsterdam and Paris until 1972, and later moved to the University of Montreal where he taught until his retirement in 1980 Zumthor’s most important contribution to medieval studies may be his Essai de poétique médiévale from 1972, which was subsequently translated into English and was published in the United States34.

In medieval French studies, the term mouvance denotes “the propensity for change characteristic of any medieval work.35” In 1955 Rychner had already used the word mouvant in order to “describe the instability of oral epic texts subjected to continual improvisation by performer- composers36.” Later, Martin de Riquer,37 and Rychner came back to the idea. Rychner revived the archaic word muance, which in Old French meant “change, variation,” and applied it to those textual varieties that renew, and at the same time corrupt medieval poems.38 Mary Blakely Speer points out that none or these scholars formulated the idea of change inherent in medieval French verse transmission into a theory, and although a number of scholarly manuscript editions that took the implication of this idea into consideration were published, none recommended the establishment of new editorial procedures or guidelines based on the concept or mouvance39. The task of formulating mouvance as a theoretical concept with implications for textual criticism was left to Zumthor, who tackled the question in a number of influential works. Zumthor defined mouvance as:

That character of a work which - to the extent that we can consider something to be a work before the era of the printed book - results from a quasi-abstraction, insofar as those concrete texts which constitute the work’s real existence present through the play of variants and re-workings something like a ceaseless vibration and a fundamental instability40.

He argued that “the notion of textual authenticity, as understood by philologists, seems to have been unknown” in vernacular texts that were composed before the end of the fifteenth century41 He also pointed out that for these texts:

The term work cannot ... be understood in its modern sense. It refers, however, to something that undoubtedly had real existence, as a complex but easily recognizable entity, made up of the sum of material witnesses to current versions. These were the synthesis of signs used by successive “authors” (singers, reciters, scribes) and of the text’s own existence in the letter. The form-meaning nexus thus generated, is thereby constantly in question. The work is fundamentally unstable. Properly speaking it has no end; it merely accepts to come to an end, at a given point, for whatever reasons. The work exists outside and hierarchically above its textual manifestations ... It will be understood that I do not mean by this to indicate the archetype of a chronological stemma. We are dealing with something existing on a different plane. Thus, conceiving the work is dynamic by definition. It grows, changes, and decays. The multiplicity and diversity of texts that bear witness to it are like special effects within the system. What we see in each of the written utterances to which the poetry can be reduced by analysis is less something complete in itself than the text still in the process of creation; not an essence, but something coming into being; rather a constantly renewed attempt to get at meaning than a meaning finally fixed; not a structure, but a phase in the structuring process.42

In the vernacular literature of medieval Europe, therefore, we encounter Pasternack’s “inscribed texts” rather than the kind of texts that most classical editors are accustomed to.

This has far-reaching and important implications for editing medieval European poetry. Medieval texts’ essential “variability,” and the belief that one “variant” is in some sense no less “authentic” than another, has led some editors of medieval French to transmit several different versions of the works. The texts of these works are set side-by-side in order to give a better sense of the variability affecting that work’s manuscript tradition. These editions, called “multitext editions,” are considered, by some, to be preferable to standard editions. After all, the absence of an acknowledged “author” for most medieval French texts makes reconstructing “his/her” exact words pointless and ahistorical.

Regardless of this theory’s merits, the relatively small size of most medieval texts makes producing multitext editions of them feasible. For instance, the oldest and longest of the manuscripts of La vie de Sainte Marie l’Egyptienne, its (version T) in Dembowski’s fine edition, has only 1532 verses.43 The limited size of troubadourish productions is typical of other Romance languages. The early Spanish poems, the Poema de Fernán González, the Mocedades de Rodrigo, and the Cantar de Mio Cid are 2,990; and 1,164; and 3,730 verses long respectively.44 For the Shāhnāma with its nearly 50,000 distichs (i.e., 100,000 lines of verse), such an edition would not be practical.

As this admittedly brief summary shows, the entire concept of mouvance hangs on the assumption of an orally influenced process of textual transmission45, In other words, a living poetic oral tradition that can actually influence the behaviour of those who read and copy texts must exist before mouvance can come into play. This oral context was completely absent in the Iran of Ferdowsi’s time. There was no tradition of “sung” or “performative” epics in Persian language that could influence the work of the Iranian scribes. I must digress here to remind the reader that although much has been made of the so-called Parthian singers, called gōsān, the word has never been mentioned in the Shāhnāma in spite of the fact that it is metrically equivalent with the word dihqān, which is mentioned as Ferdowsi’s source thousands of times. Moreover, in contrast to the medieval European conditions, the ideas of the “author” as well as “authorial proprietorship” were quite developed in the classical Middle East. Finally, the layout of classical Persian poetic texts was quintessentially visual rather than “aural.” A discussion of text layout in classical Persian and Arabic manuscripts would take us far afield. Suffice to say that prose and poetry are clearly distinguishable in the overwhelming majority or these manuscripts.

Variant spelling and dialect diversity were two additional factors that contributed to the textual instability of medieval European texts. Standardisation of English spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon. Students of Middle English (that is, the form of English, which came into use from the beginning of the 12th to the middle or the 15th centuries CE)46, find the instability of Middle English spelling quite annoying especially when they find out that a given Middle English word may be spelled differently throughout the same text, even in manuscripts that are copied by the same scribe.47 The effects of instable spelling upon textual transmission, is further complicated by the influence of dialect variations in Middle English. Margaret M. Roseborough lists the following dialect variation for the simple sentence, “I will say” in the 14th century: I wil sai (Northern), I wil seyn (East Midland), I wol saie (West Midland), ich wule sigge (South Western), ich wyle zigge (Kentish)48. Chaucer was troubled by the deleterious effects of these factors, and complained at the end of his Trouilus and Criseyde:

And for there is so gret diversite
In Englissh, and in writing of oure tonge,
So prey I god that non miswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.
And red wherso thow be, or elles songe,
That thow be understonde, god I biseche.-
But, yit to purpose of my rather speche49.

And since there is such great diversity
In English, and our writing is so young,
I pray to God that none may mangle thee,
Or wrench thy metre by default of tongue;
And wheresoever thou be read, or sung,
I beg of God that thou be understood!
And now to close my story as I should.50

In contrast to the medieval European situation, the overwhelming majority of words in Persian and Arabic have been spelled the same for a thousand years. Moreover, at the time when Chaucer was complaining about spelling variability and dialectic diversity in English, spelling of Persian was fully standardized, and was, in fact, about four hundred years old. The relative conservatism of Persian language and spelling has continued to the present day, when most Persians who have received a decent high school education can easily read classical Persian texts that were composed a thousand years ago.

Classical Persian and Arabic texts were copied and transmitted under drastically different cultural circumstances than those that governed the production and transmission of vernacular medieval European literatures. Those who argue that the conditions under which European scribes and authors worked, have anything to do with the circumstances of classical Islam, fail to take cultural and historical evidence into account. In his “Comments on H. R. Jauss’s Article,” Paul Zumthor criticizes what he calls “blind modernism51” which he defines as an “unthinking imposition of modern principles of literature on medieval writings52.” Drawing upon his insight, we might hypothesize that those who unthinkingly impose medieval European principles of textual transmission and authorship upon classical Islam are suffering from “blind medievalism.” Assuming Western culture to be the norm, they blindly impose their Eurocentric notions upon an alien tradition with total disregard for the vast chasm of culture and practice that separated medieval Europe from classical Islam.

The fact that almost all the works of medieval European vernacular literature lack a singular “author” in the sense that that word is commonly understood, justifies the application of certain editorial techniques implied by the mouvance theory. Medieval European texts dis not flow from the minds of specific authors. Rather, they were products of an often sung oral tradition that hovered somewhere between oral and written expression. In the words of Zumthor:

Well into the fourteenth century a very large number of surviving texts are anonymous in the current state of our knowledge, and will remain so, because of the way they have been transmitted to us. Even when a name appears, whether as “signature” or by scribal tradition, we are usually dealing with very common first names, like Pierre, Raoul, or Guillaume, which therefore tell us nothing. … A toponym as part of a name may indicate a place of origin (Marie de France) or domicile (Chrestien de Troyes) or feudal dependence (Bernart de Ventadorn) Moreover, there is a frequent failure to distinguish clearly between the categories of author, reciter, and scribe, as in the case of Turold, who signed the Oxford manuscript of La Chanson de Roland. It would perhaps be safer, except when there is clear proof other- wise, that the word “author” covers all three of these overlapping meanings. ... In the early period, pre-1100, the very notion of authorship seems to disappear. ... Authorship at this date implies continuation, not invention53.

As I have repeatedly pointed out, none of the theories of authorial anonymity in medieval European literature can be extended to the literary cultures of classical Islam in which composers of lyric and narrative verse were associated with specific works. They were not anonymous scribes; their names - and a fair amount of biographical information about them - were known to both literati and artistic patrons. Biographical dictionaries about poets, scholars, and other authors appeared as early as the 9th century CE among Muslims. Ibn Sallām al-Jumahī’s (d. 847 CE) Tabaqāt al-fuhūl al-Shu ʿarā’ (The Classes of Master Poets) and the great biographical dictionary of literary figures by Yāqūt (1179-1229CE), are only two of the many in which poets and literati of the classical Muslim lands are identified in entries that sometime run to over 100 pages of information54. Ibn al-Nadīm, a bibliophile and stationer in Baghdad, who composed his famous al-fihrist (Catalogue) in the 10th century CE, has preserved the names of many classical authors who produced narrative works in prose and in poetry. Among these, he mentions Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. circa CE 759), Sahl ibn Hārūn (d. 830 CE), ʿAlī b. Dāwūd (midth of 8th century CE), and the official, Jahshiyārī (d. 942 CE), who compiled a collection of Arabic, Persian, Greek, and other tales55. Classical Muslim scholars who consulted works were mindful of authors’ identities. They carefully distinguished anonymous works from those of known authorship, because authorial identity was an important factor in assessing the dependability of sources. Collections of unknown authorship did not enjoy the same authority as those whose authors were known.

The fact that authors of classical Persian and Arabic texts are generally far from anonymous has important implications. Classical Muslim literature soon developed the notion of “authorial proprietorship,” a concept that did not appear in Europe until the 18th century56. Although no specific “copyright” laws existed per se in classical Persian and Arabic, the idea or the proprietary rights of authors may be inferred from many statements that are scattered throughout Islam’s classical canon. These rights, as the following account implies, were apparently understood to be part of the author’s estate. For instance, we know that shortly after the year 1058 CE, when the historian Bayhaqī was writing his history or the Ghaznavids in which he had liberally quoted the works of another historian, Mahmūd the Stationer, he had to stop using Mahmūd’s work in response to the objections of the latter’s inheritors who asserted their proprietary rights to their father’s work57, Bayhaqī’s report implies that the proprietary rights of Mahmud the Stationer are recognized in Iran during the first half of the 11th century CE. This is some six hundred years before the Donaldson v. Becket decision by the English House of Lords laid the grounds for subsequent copyright law in Europe. We should also note Ferdowsi’s own lament at the end of his great epic, about how men of means copied his work without giving him anything but praise. Implicit in his complaint is the sense of entitlement to some financial reward for the work of narrative poetry that he produced (in Khaleqi-Motlagh’s new editorial edition, see viii: 486: 877-82):

When five and sixty years had passed me by
I viewed my task with more anxiety,
And as my yearning to achieve it grew
My fortune’s star receded from my view.
Persians well read and men of high degree
Wrote all my work out and would take no fee.
I over-looked from afar, and thou hadst said
That they had rather handselled me instead!
Naught but their praises had I for my part,
And while they praised, I had a broken heart.
The mouths of their old money-bags were tied,
Whereat mine ardent heart was mortified.

In view of this evidence, drawing analogies between Iran’s literary epic and medieval French or English vernacular literatures, or insinuating that classical Persian narrative poetry was not the work of specific authors would be impossible to believe. The Neo-Orientalist assertion that oral tradition played a role in the Shāhnāma’s textual transmission depends on Eurocentric prejudice and false analogy. It reflects a one-size-fits-all mentality that takes no account or either context or culture.

As I hope to have demonstrated by now, students of medieval European literatures developed their ideas about the instability of their texts from a careful examination of the manuscript traditions at their disposal. Specific features of these traditions led them to their conclusions about the anonymity of the author and the important role that scribes, reciters, and performers played in the transmission of medieval European texts. These scholars did not impose a preconceived model upon their textual tradition from outside that tradition. By contrast, those who attempt to apply the mouvance theory to the Shāhnāma present no manuscript evidence at all. They expect to convince us by analogical reasoning alone. Their sweeping generalisations about the manuscript tradition of Iran’s national poem are methodologically flawed. They are flawed because they rely on the kind of prejudicial reasoning that insists on equating the highly literate classical Muslim culture with the sub-literate cultures of medieval Europe.

Two circumstances should be present before we can think of any manuscript tradition in terms of mouvance. First, the cultural context under which that textual tradition was created must allow the kinds of textual re-creations and instabilities that are implied in mouvance. And second, the codices in that manuscript tradition must display such vast textual variation that a single author or a fixed primary text may be reasonably ruled out. Moreover, the variations in that manuscript tradition must be of a kind that cannot be explained in terms of the usual scribal practices. Given these conditions, it may be justifiable to consider different “performances” or diverse artistic “re-creations” (mouvance) to be at work behind the textual variants of a given manuscript tradition. By contrast, if variations in that manuscript tradition are insignificant, or if they may be explained by recourse to the usual scribal practices, then there is no cause to invoke either orality or mouvance. No special pleading can alter the simple historical and linguistic facts that the Shāhnāma’s manuscript tradition is so conservative as to be virtually immobile, let alone “mouvant.” Since I have discussed the statistical features of the poem’s manuscript tradition in some detail elsewhere,58 I will not labor the point here.

Let me end this short essay by relating an observation that stresses the importance of cultural context in assessing any manuscript tradition, and also recalls the personality of the great scholar to whose memory this volume is dedicated. Professor Masoumi Hamadani is a permanent member of the Iranian Academy of Language and Literature. In his obituary to Iraj Afshar, he wrote:

I want to show one of Afshar’s typical characteristics by posing a hypothetical question. If most of us were asked, “what would make you happier; the discovery of the lost books of Bayhaqī’s history, or the discovery of the personal diaries of a resident of the city of Ghazna who lived in the 10thcentury; diaries in which the man had recorded his annual expenditures?” Most of us would respond that our joy at the discovery of the lost parts of Bayhaqī’s great history could not possibly be compared to what the news of the discovery of some nameless citizen’s diaries would excite in us. But I think that Iraj Afshar could not answer this question as easily as the rest of us could. This is because his idea of history was not limited to the accounts of great events, such as wars, victories, defeats, etc. What was important to him was the evidence of the material as well as the spiritual lives of the communities that he studied59.

My experience of over a quarter of a century of friendship and study with Iraj Afshar tells me that Professor Masoumi is quite right. Context in analysis of historical events was very important to Afshar; and the imaginary diaries in Professor Masoumi’s question could provide that context for our departed friend. Context is as essential in textual editing as it is in historical studies. Knowing under what circumstances our manuscripts were produced, who produced them, and how they were transmitted, is as important as ascertaining their dates or determining the relative authority of their texts. Attention to these contexts is what seems to be lacking in some recent pronouncements on Shāhnāma editing.

Source note:
This article was published in the following book:
Research Articles and Studies in honour of Iraj Afshar, 2018, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 279-304.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.

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