Reading the Scholarly Archive in the Pre-Ottoman Arabic Middle East
Over the last decades, medieval Middle Eastern history has taken a ‘documentary turn’, bringing the question of the archive into focus for the first time. This development has thus far mostly focused on documents produced by and circulating within the political elite (the ‘state’). This project, in contrast, focuses on documents produced in scholarly contexts, namely the ‘audition certificates’ (ijāza/ṭibāq al-samāʿ) in which a teacher granted the participants of a reading session the licence to teach (or rather transmit) the read-out text. These audition certificates contain an unparalleled wealth of historical data. For instance, they contain the names of marginalised individuals, especially of women and slaves, who hardly appear as historical actors in narrative sources. Moreover, they provide topographical information, names of buildings, links of kinship, prices, historical events, and terms for various crafts and trades.
Despite its value, the material has still not received sufficient scholarly attention. To a large extent, this is the case because these notes are dispersed on thousands of manuscripts in libraries around the world, and are generally not even mentioned in the library catalogues. To date, the vast majority of audition certificates remains unedited or hidden behind a paywall.
The present project addresses this problem by creating the Audition Certificate Platform (ACP), the first large-scale resource for audition certificates. ACP will create a unique and fully searchable corpus that will have a long-term impact in fields such as social history, history of ideas, economic history, urban history, historical topography, and biographical studies. Cooperation with the Research Field ‘Data Linking’ and with the Bibliotheca Arabica project will ensure that ACP will sit within a rich network of digital resources.
In addition to building a new research tool, the project conceptualises audition certificates as a distributed archive. We will ask specifically for the materiality of how this scholarly archive was stored, transmitted, and accessed, including questions of the textual and material life-cycles through which audition certificates went. This focus on life-cycles is so crucial because these documents originate from very ‘unarchival’ contexts, namely codices. Once we start to take life-cycles into consideration, we are able to identify the different layers of attitudes towards these documents, and the different social uses to which they were put. Overall, this enables us to understand how scholars archived their scholarly practices, how they accessed this ‘distributed’ archive, and how they used this archive in composing biographical dictionaries.