When a handful of colleagues from the field of East Asian Studies met in 2004, no one would have thought that this modest initiative would eventually lead to the establishment of a Cluster of Excellence as well as an international research centre. The impetus of this meeting was to take up the rich tradition of manuscript research in Asian and African Studies at the Asien-Afrika-Institut (AAI) at the University of Hamburg, and to initiate a cross-disciplinary endeavour to include the global diversity of cultures into the then rather narrow field of manuscript studies.
Michael Friedrich (Chinese Studies) and Jörg B. Quenzer (Japanese Studies) were the first to conceive of a global and holistic approach to the study of manuscripts that combined the humanities, computer science and eventually the natural sciences in so far as they were concerned with the study of materials. On the one hand, they followed the ‘material turn’ of the 1980s with its claims to a so-called ‘material philology’ or even ‘materialist philology’ (Stephen G. Nichols). On the other hand, Friedrich and Quenzer were determined to calibrate this turn by transcending purely abstract discussions of ‘materiality’ by instead scrutinising the concrete materials manuscripts are manufactured from.
From a first idea to a research unit
The first results of this endeavour was a series of lectures at AAI intended to attract colleagues and students to this novel approach. Among the contributors and sympathizers were not only members of AAI, but also external colleagues and, right from the start, a few Europeanists from the University of Hamburg, among them Bruno Reudenbach (Medieval European Art History). In 2006, preparations for a closer formal cooperation among AAI scholars began which led to the establishment of the Forschergruppe (FOR, ‘Research Unit’) ‘Manuscript Cultures in Asia and Africa’, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) in 2008 (FOR 963, 2008-2011).
This unit consisted of eight sub-projects in Asian and African Studies as well one in Computer Science and was found its first home at Rothenbaumchaussee 34. By excluding the Europeanist disciplines and focussing instead on the topic of variance, its members hoped that the advanced methodological and theoretical foundations of European manuscript research would bring new insights to Asian and African Studies. While this turned out to be true, it also led to the discovery that many of these foundations in principle were built on the achievements of the study of the Ancient Mediterranean and Western European Middle Ages. Many of the ideas that had been taken as given thus far would reveal themselves to be of regional value only; to name but one example: while European book and media history was dominated by the notion of a mono-linear genesis ‘from manuscript to print’, both had coexisted side by side since c. 700 CE in East Asia. As a result, the unit’s general research direction was redirected toward a closer study of the artefacts themselves, taking the achievements of the Europeanist disciplines as inspiration, but not as dogma, at the same time engaging in a dialogue with its partners in Asia and Africa.
The formation of SFB 950 ‘Manuscript Cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe’
As a result of the success of this initial research group and building on its well-established global network, the Hamburg unit was encouraged to apply for funding for a Sonderforschungsbereich (SFB, ‘Collaborative Research Centre’). This eventually led to the establishment of Sonderforschungsbereich ‘Manuscript Cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe’, for the first time integrating projects from the Europeanist disciplines, and again funded by DFG (SFB 950, 2011-2020). The insights gained in the research group were incorporated into the programme of the SFB which dealt with paratexts, visual organisation and collections in its first phase from 2011 to 2015. In its second phase from 2015 to 2020, Cécile Michel (Assyriology; Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Paris; since 2017 also Universität Hamburg) joined the SFB adding Mesopotamia and inorganic writing support to its map. During its second phase, new fields of enquiry were learning, ritual and agency.
In addition to these projects rooted in the humanities, another one was in the field of computer science as well as two in the field of materials science, the latter being overseen by Oliver Hahn (Archaeometry; BAM – Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung, Berlin) who also serves as professor at the University of Hamburg and who created the SFB’s manuscript lab. In the end, the SFB housed a total of 26 sub-projects. In 2012, a working group on theory and terminology was founded, which has been headed by Alessandro Bausi (Ethiopian Studies) since then. In addition, Oliver Huck (Historical Musicology) directed its Graduate School with numerous doctoral students from all over the world. In 2017, the master programme 'Manuscript Cultures' was conducted for the first time. Additionally, the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures regularly hosts research fellows who spend periods from one up to six months in order to pursue their studies in close exchange with their colleagues at CSMC.
The birth of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures
In 2012, the SFB finally moved to its own premises just minutes away from the Outer Alster Lake and Dammtor Station at Warburgstraße 26. Prior to the move, an agreement had been reached with the university that this building would not only house the SFB, but also additional manuscript research projects. This allowed for the establishment of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) in order to create a synergy between the SFB and adjacent projects. Since then, quite a number of smaller and larger projects have been conducted under the same roof, among them 'NETamil', 'Safegurading the Manuscripts of Timbuktu', the Ajami Lab, and the ‘Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia (DREAMSEA)’.
Establishing the Cluster of Excellence ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’
In 2018, the CSMC’s proposal for a Cluster of Excellence was successful, and in the following year the Cluster ‘Understanding Written Artefacts: Material, Interaction and Transmission in Manuscript Cultures’ (EXC 2176, 2019-2025) was set up. Again, insights from the former SFB had helped to shape the Cluster’s programme and to develop its global and holistic approach. It had already become clear earlier that the traditional distinctions between manuscript (‘book’) and document on the one hand (see here for a definition of CSMC’s use of manuscript), and between library and archive on the other were the results of Western European developments. If taken as absolute, important aspects of manuscript cultures would go unnoticed. This holds true even for the seemingly obvious dichotomy between manuscript and inscription, which eventually led to the conceptualisation of all objects carrying handwriting as ‘written artefacts’. Consequently, the Cluster investigates all sorts of inscriptions, including the study of their materials.