arabic book history Intellectual history Literature philology religious history

The Problem of Authorship and Pseudepigraphy in Islamic Intellectual History

By W. Sasson Chahanovich

Why should we care about the author? The answer to this question is not self-evident. While Roland Barthes may have declared the “death of the author” over half a century ago, the author as existential personhood, as cultural celebrity, and as value marker still lives on in both critical theory and in historical research (Barthes, “La mort de l’auteur”). This is what Michel Foucault identified as “author function,” by which he means that the author as ‘name-on-work’ can have more relevance beyond identifying an historical individual or limiting the parameters of what we today call intellectual property (Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, 205–222). While the problem of the author has made much methodological headway in fields like the Classics, Jewish and early Christian studies, and literary theory, Islamic intellectual history still lacks a systematic assessment of the concept of the author (e.g. kātib, mu’allif). Moreover, no research exists on the topic of ‘forgery,’ i.e. pseudepigraphy, which is the much-maligned twin of the canonical notion of the trustworthy author.

Specifically, Classicists still remind us that Homer qua actual historical ‘author’ may be fiction. Yet so they also problematize the issue of authorship by simultaneously noting that, while an unknown composer ‘penned’ the textual artifacts known as The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s name still has value; it limits the meaning of the text. Likewise, historians of Christianity point out time and again the many forgeries (10 to 13) present in the New Testament. They are also quick to point out that this evidently has had little effect on the faith communities who accept them as inspired works. As Karen King notes, “while they, too, were not indifferent about false attribution and forgery, their concerns pertained to authority, prestige, and character rather than to modern economic and legal considerations…”(King, “‘What Is an Author?’,” 17).

In contrast, only a handful of Islamic historians have touched on pseudepigraphy or ‘forgery,’ a normative epithet that should be applied cautiously. This is remarkable given the spans of the textual archive of Islamic intellectual history. After all, three of its major written languages – Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish – functioned as the authorial/scribal language from the Atlantic to Central Asia. Even in the earliest days of Orientalistik, philologically minded German scholars largely ignored the question of authorship. Not even Ignaz Goldziher or Theodor Nöldeke, two of the leading names in the early days of Islamwissenschaft,debated the value of falsified texts. Only the canonical literature counted.

Only more recently have some scholars taken up this neglected field, especially concerning pseudepigraphy. For example, Roberto Tottoli has discussed the eschatological corpora commonly mislabeled as the Conditions of Resurrection (Aḥwāl al-qiyāmah) (Tottoli, “Muslim Eschatological Literature,” 452-477). Michael Pregill has analyzed the early, biblically infused Islamic legend-cum-homiletic material known as the isrā’iliyyāt. In particular, Pregill revisits the “function” of the names of several early, well-attested transmitters and their biographies as Jewish converts to Islam (Pregill, “Isrā’īlliyāt, Myth, and Pseudepigraphy,” 220). In a confessional context, the authorial identity of these names weighs heavy on the concept of religious truth. Gabriel Said Reynolds has addressed the Islamic polemic of Jewish and Christian “distortion” (taḥrīf) of their own holy scriptures. Thus, Muḥammad and the compilers of the Qurʾān-qua-codex implicitly move onto the historical stage as the most trustworthy authors and editors. Historians of Islam stand to enrich our understanding of scientific and cultural output if they were to investigate the modes of authorship and its mutations across genre, linguistic idiom, and cultural context.

The archive of Islamic intellectual history has much more to offer us that remains entirely untouched. Pseudepigraphic material and even outright forgeries are abundant, especially in the early modern period. For example, in the Süleymaniye Archival Library in Istanbul, two copies (Mss. Ayasofya 2246 and 2247) exist of an anti-trinitarian polemic titled the Kind Response (al-Radd al-ğamīl), which is attributed to Abū Ḥāmid al-Ġazālī (d. 1111). This is none other than the clerical curmudgeon and author of the Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifah), who is popularly held to have killed Islamic philosophy. Even august Islamic scholars like Louis Massignon and A.J. Arberry took the attribution at face value and promoted the text as a bona fide part of al-Ġazālī’s oeuvre (Massignon, “Le Christ dans les evangiles selon al-Ghazālı̄,” 523-536; Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization, 300-307). Yet an examination of the manuscript quickly throws the certainty of its authorship into question. If we cannot definitively ascertain the authorship, what resonance did al-Ġazālī’s name have for the readers of this text? For now, it is safe to assume that the great theologian’s name exhibited an appeal, much like that of a Paul of Tarsus, that enhanced the theological importance and historical weight of the text.

In a similar vein, there existed a whole cottage industry of pseudepigraphic authors and misattributions surrounding the name of Islam’s most famous Sufi master, Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). One of the most widely circulated and commented works by these anonymous authors was The Tree of Nuʿmān (al-Šağarah al-nuʿmāniyyah, see Fig. 1). This eschatological and esoteric work not only prophesies the End of the World, but it also identifies the Ottoman sultans as the gatekeepers of the Resurrection. Whoever the real author was, the authorial motivation was in part practical. The prophecy received a wider readership and greater credibility with the name of Ibn al-ʿArabī backing it up. Thus, one may speak, as Laura Nasrallah has done, of both al-Ġazālī and Ibn al-ʿArabī as having lived “authorial afterlives”; the specter of their names lingers down the halls of reader reception (Nasrallah, “‘Out of Love for Paul’,” 93).

Another instance of authorial afterlife and mistaken attribution surrounds the apocalyptic work variably titled the Comprehensive Prognosticon (al-Ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), the Key to the Comprehensive Prognosticon (Miftāḥ al-ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), or the Orderly Pearl (al-Durr al-munaẓẓam) (for example, see Kâtip Çelebi, Kašf al-ẓunūn, 605). As much as the title is unstable, so too is its authorship a moving target. Toufic Fahd attempted to stabilize the situation by attributing the Comprehensive Prognosticon to Ibn Ṭalḥah (d. 1254), a little known esoteric Sufi practitioner, and the Key or the Orderly Pearl as interchangeable titles of a commentary on the former composed by the greater known esoteric Sufi ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmı̄ (d. 1454) (Fahd, La divination arabe, 228-229). This simple distinction does not pan out in the archive, however. Titles are more the product of later scribal hands and therefore subject to variation. One such Prognosticon (Süleymaniye Ms. Bağdatlı Vehbi 915) is even attributed to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib, the Prophet Muḥammad’s cousin, son-in-law, and fourth Caliph (see Fig. 2). Second, the oldest known copy of the Key (Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, dated 899 AH/1493 CE) evinces no awareness of Bisṭāmı̄ as copyist or commentator. More recently, perhaps due to the popularity of Bisṭāmı̄, Ibn Ṭalḥah has been excised from the genealogy of this esoteric corpus. How, in this case, does one author-commentator become preferred over the primary source composer?

A final example of authorial function is the instance of works that never were. Much like in Judaism or Christianity, fabricated texts – real or imagined, canonical or extra-canonical – gained an aura of greater legitimacy when attributed to some ancient and revered figure. Thus, the Book of Daniel is attributed to the legendary hero Daniel, and the apocalypse of Enoch to the antediluvian patriarch Enoch. In Islam, there is an entire esoteric tradition built up around ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. As they developed the Islamic esoteric tradition, Sunnī and Shīʿı̄ Muslims alike imagined a corpus of non-existent books such as the Small Book of Ǧafr (Kitāb al-ğafr al-ṣaġīr) and the Book of ʿAlı̄ (Kitāb ʿAlī) and assigned them to ʿAlī, the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. An author’s name thus created meaning both in texts and around the ideas themselves, abstract or imagined though they may be.

The problem of authorship is therefore a promising field of inquiry for scholars of Islamic intellectual history. Perhaps more interesting than the well-established textual tradition, anonymous authors and creative scribes in the archive present us with an opportunity to rethink our approach to title pages. Our blithe certainty about the lives of writers, their texts, and their circulation sets us up for missing the big picture. The forgery needn’t always be bad news.


Fig. 1: Süleymaniye Ms. Beyazıd 4609, fol. 4a. Here, Ps. Ibn al-ʿArabī refers to his own grave in the third person. He also uses the epithet “Reviver of Religion” (muḥyī al-dı̄n), highlighted here in red. This is a superlative used more commonly in the Ottoman empire to refer to their patron saint. Otherwise, in autograph works the great mystic only referred to himself as Abū ʿAbd Allāh.

Fig. 2: Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, fol. 5a. The title given in red identifies the work as The Big Prognosticon and attributes the text to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. Yet in the first line, highlighted here in red, we are presented with the title Comprehensive Prognosticon more commonly associated with Ibn Ṭalḥah. This manuscript does not match the standard opening of Ibn Ṭalḥah’s work but does contain overlaping sections and diagrams.

W. Sasson Chahanovich is a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Intellectual History at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where he is writing his thesis on Ottoman eschatological enthusiasm. Sasson is also currently developing a project that reconsiders the connections between Islamic, Jewish, and Christian apocalypticism in the early modern period.

Asian History Marxism philology Tibet

“Serfs” on the Roof of the World: The Importance of Terminology in Discussions of Politically Sensitive History

By Contributing Editor Kristin Buhrow

Most commonly associated with Medieval Europe, the term “serf” is commonly used to describe a certain type of peasant class with a particular set of living conditions.  From the European Middle Ages, academic discourse in English has imposed the term “serf” onto populations of landless peasants in nineteenth century Russia (Melton, 1987), early twentieth-century East Africa (Huntingford, 1931), and beyond.  This essay will explore the application of the term “serf” to peasants of a particular social and political context: the mi ser class within Pre-Modern Tibet, the political and social effects of the modern use of this term, and the importance of recognizing the politicized use of terminology in academic and political discussions more generally.

Farmland outside of Meldro Gungkar, Tibet.  August, 2017. Photography by Kristin Buhrow.


While each of the cultural contexts mentioned above exhibits a different sort of peasant class affected by unique conditions, resources, and norms, the designation of these as “serf” classes is dependent upon the existence of an interminable relationship with a particular member of the higher class—a “lord”. According to Melvyn Goldstein’s multiple treaties on the application of the term “serf,” a class’ designation as such indicates a “hereditary superordinate-subordinate relationship in which the subordinate possesses a legal identity independent of the superordinate” (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), the subordinate’s lack of legal right to terminate the relationship (Goldstein, 1971 p. 522), and “a degree of judicial control” by the superordinate over the subordinate (Goldstein 1986 p. 82).  Whatever the other conditions experienced by a peasant class, these criteria serve to determine which social classes may be designated a “serf” class (as opposed to a slave or more general peasant class) regardless of culture.

Based on the principles above, some academics and political personages have recognized Pre-Modern Tibet (1642-1959) a culture practicing serfdom.  More complex than a simple array of lord and serf relationships, however, the taxonomy of Pre-Modern Tibetan social classes involves several branches.  Firstly, Pre-Modern Tibet might be divided into two social classes: the monastic population and the laity. Focusing on the laity, this category could be divided into two clear classes:  the landed aristocracy, sger pa, and the peasants, or mi ser[1] (Goldstein, 1971 p.522-3).  Despite both sger pa and mi ser contributing children to the monastic population, those who remained part of the laity were obligated to fulfill unequal social roles.  Far outnumbering the sger pa, who constituted only about 200-350 aristocratic families, the mi ser were a more diverse population in terms of wealth, lifestyle, and location on the Tibetan plateau.

While responsive to a particular sger pa family, the condition of the Tibetan mi ser diverges with that of other global peasantries classified as serfs with regard to their ability to challenge their social superiors, accumulate resources, and even change locations.  Unlike their feudal European counterparts, Tibetan mi ser were not only able, but publicly encouraged to appeal to other members of the aristocracy and even the central court system to challenge or prosecute nefarious or unjust members of the aristocracy (Goldstein, 1971 p. 523; Bischoff, 2013 p. 12). This access to the court system and the influence of other aristocrats allowed mi ser a more powerful role in their social relationships than “serfs” in other cultural contexts.  In addition to providing peasants with prosecution rights, premodern Tibetan lords were less powerful than their medieval counterparts because they could not unilaterally alter the amount of taxes required or the amount of land serfs held (Goldstein, 1971 p.522), lords often provided minimal oversight so long as corves were met (Goldstein, 1971 p. 526). Perhaps related to a standard of minimal oversight, Tibetan mi ser did not necessarily live in destitute conditions.  The status of mi ser then, were not analogized to serfs because of high levels of poverty or total incapability to challenge the will of their lords; instead, mi ser have been analogized to serfs due to a lifelong bond to the land of one aristocratic family, extending to the lives of their descendants[2]  for multiple generations.

Within the social category of mi ser is an allowance for an alternative lifestyle which further complicates the discussion of mi ser as land-bound serf: the geographically mobile mi bogs. Translated to “human lease,” mi ser who obtain the status of mi bogs were leased to work on other estates.  This status was usually taken on voluntarily by the mi ser with approval from their sger pa landowner to allow for more freedom as to geographic location as well as the ability to travel.  Some Tibetologists claim that the existence of a status like mi bogs indicates that mi ser were free to travel, not bound to the land of a sger pa family, and therefore not able to be categorized as serfs at all (Alice Travers going as far as to assert that mi bogs were “a masterless sect of people—people without land, without master, and without a servant” [2013 p.151]).  However, while the availability of the mi bogs path does differentiate the experiences of Tibetan mi ser from other groups of “serfs,” it is important to note that even while away, mi ser still had to respond to their original sger pa family’s commands, pay an annual fee to the sger pa, travel where the sger pa commanded, and return home upon his order (Goldstein, 1986 p. 94). As such, even with the allowance of a certain number of mi ser to attain the status of mi bogs and live away from the immediate lands of the sger pa, the social relationship between mi ser and sger pa remained not only extant, but influential.  Even in cases of geographic removal, mi ser were still responsive to the owners of the lands they were obligated to work.  In this context, the term “serf” may render a fairly accurate picture of certain aspects of the lives of mi ser in Pre-Modern Tibet.

Despite its application to the Tibetan peasants of more than sixty years ago, the modern description of mi ser as a “serf” class has functioned in support of a narrative condoning the communist party’s occupation of and Sinicization efforts within Tibet.  Since entry of the communists in1959, Chinese political publications have emphasized the parallels between the mi ser sger pa relationship and the serf – lord relationship. This emphasis includes making direct reference to the mi ser population as “serfs” in English language publications. Taking one popular example, the word “serf” occurs some thirty-five times in the 2001 edition of the English language Chinese government public relations leaflet “100 Questions on Tibet” (Barnett, 2008 p. 81).  While it is true that some aspects of the Pre-Modern Tibetan peasant experience allow the mi ser to be categorized alongside serfs according to loose, culturally relative definitions, it is also likely that associating Pre-Modern Tibetan peasants with a historical system known for oppression of laborers was a conscious choice by the Chinese Communist Party to illicit support for the seizure and Sinicization of Tibet.

This support from admirers of the Chinese Communist Party and Communists worldwide was sought by appealing to a Marxist perspective of linear societal development.  In the Marxist view, a feudal society is considered less “evolved” than an industrial society; this perspective allows communists to deduce that any cultural operating on a system similar to feudalism is inferior to the more developed China.  While a necessary stepping stone to reach the higher evolutions of social structure, the stark differences between the landed and laboring classes in feudalism render the system, in the Marxist eye, “inseparable from extreme abuse” (Barnett, 2008 p.82). This narrative of Pre-Modern Tibet as a society characterized by violently abusive inequality is propagated to justify its seizure of Tibet and excuse some of the human rights abuses which take place there today.  As noted by Travers in her 2013 article, this Marxist narrative has been reinforced by the Chinese Communist Party and Western observers with communist backgrounds since 1959 (p. 143).  Understanding this politicization of historical social hierarchies, while the term “serf” is technically accurate, its use legitimizes a construction of Tibetan history which marginalizes traditional Tibetan norms and allows the Communist Party to take the role of a savior society.

In the quest for honest and fruitful discourse, it is important that all discussants be aware, not only of the historical realities of the past, but also the political context of the present.  A responsible contributor must therefore be able to earnestly describe the likely difficult conditions for life among Pre-Modern Tibetan mi ser and must acknowledge that mi ser did live within a system which could be easily abused by their sger pa counterparts.  Simultaneously, an informed discussant can not act as if openly associating the conditions of the mi ser with medieval serfdom does not have a history of politicization.  Under conditions such as these, academic and political discussions must remain open, with the choice to analogize the mi ser with serfdom available for those who have no qualms with the modern connotations.  Likewise, the choice to refrain from making the analogy or to argue against the appropriateness of the analogy should be regarded as a form of academic activism by those who wish to knowingly partake.

[1]Other variations on these Tibetan terms include sku drag for aristocracy and smad rigs for peasants (Travers, 2013 p.141).

[2] Descendants of peasants were ascribed through parallel descent, with sons going to their father’s lord, and daughters go to mother’s lord (Goldstein, 1971 p. 522).


arabic book history Iberian history Intellectual history philology

From the Archive: The Early History of Arabic Printing in Europe

by Maryam Patton (April 2015)

In the middle of the ninth century, Paulus Alvarus complained about Spanish Christian youths who were abandoning Latin for the native Arabic of their new conquerors. Yet nearly seven hundred years later, when the last Muslim state of Grenada fell to the Reconquista in 1492, the sustained study of Arabic in Europe suffered a fatal blow. In the following years, royal decrees banning the use of Arabic and book and manuscript burnings, such as the one initiated by Archbishop of Toledo Ximénez de Cisneros in 1499, worked to undo the special relevance Arabic had had for Europeans (Toomer, 17). Until well into the seventeenth century, European interest in the philological pursuit of Arabic waxed and waned. The sources for this interest included the Crusades, scientific knowledge, the rediscovery and transmission of Greek classical texts from Arabic and Syriac translations, and faith-based missions to the Near East. These factors constituted a “first wave” of interest in Arabic study in the medieval period. It was not until a “second wave” of interest beginning in the sixteenth century that Arabic became a sustainable subject for philological inquiry (Russell, 1-19).

This second wave embodied some of the same concerns the original Arabists felt concerning the religious significance of Arabic. In addition to their evangelical missions, early modern students of Arabic sought to reconnect with Eastern Christian communities such as the Maronites and Coptic Christians. In 1584 Pope Gregory XIII founded the hugely successful Maronite College in Rome for the education of Jesuit missionaries traveling East. Meanwhile, growing pressure from the encroaching Ottomans, combined with Ottoman “capitulations” allowing for expanded economic involvement within Ottoman territories, offered economic incentives to study Arabic, as well as Persian and Turkish.

Yet, during the early modern period, an increasing emphasis came to be placed on studying Arabic for its own sake, rather than purely religious or economic concerns. Joseph Scaliger (1540–1609) was one significant example of an early modern scholar who argued for the study of Arabic as an end rather than a means. He stressed the importance of the Koran as a waypoint to understanding Arabic language and culture. His own knowledge of Arabic was limited, but his influence as a professor at Leiden and the example he set for his students ought to be emphasized. Upon his death he bequeathed his impressive library of Oriental manuscripts to the university, helping to establish the Netherlands as one of Europe’s most important centers for the study of Arabic (Toomer, 42-45).

The pursuit of Arabic for its own sake was facilitated by the appearance of printing presses sophisticated enough to print in Arabic using moveable type without relying on crude woodcuts. John Selden’s (1584–1654) 1614 book Titles of Honor for instance relied on woodcuts for the ‘words of the Eastern tongue’ like amir and sultan, but the letters looked strange and often appeared alone when they should instead have been connected to the following letter. In some cases, blanks were left in books where Arabic words were called for and were written in later by hand, like in Richard Brett’s Theses published at Oxford in 1597 (Roper, 12-13).

Proper Arabic type made it possible to finally print grammars and dictionaries. Previously, students had to rely on native speakers and others who already knew the language. The first book containing Arabic printed with moveable type was a book of hours printed in 1514 and intended for use in the near east. Though it was published independently by the Venetian Gregorio de Gregorii, it was paid for by Pope Julius II, and featured odd shapes for some of the letters (cut by Gregorii himself). The characters dal and dhal in particular were too large and should not have curved down below the baseline.

Book of Hours 2


A number of other religious texts intended for Christians in the East appeared soon thereafter, but the most impressive feat was a complete Koran published in 1538 in Venice by Paganino de Paganini and his son Alessandro. It was printed entirely in Arabic without any Latin characters whatsoever in an effort to disguise its Western origins, and was most likely intended for sale in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans did not establish their own printing presses for another two hundred years, with the efforts of Ibrahim Müteferrika. Sadly, a lack of demand and the costs associated with creating new Arabic type (not to mention the numerous errors contained therein) bankrupted Paganini. Only one extant copy of this text is known (Nuovo, 79-81).

First printed Qur'an in west

Italian printing in Arabic reached its height in Rome starting in 1584 with the founding of the Medici Oriental Press by Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici. Pope Gregory XIII again offered his support, and with a newly designed type from the famed typographer Robert Granjon, the Medici Press was in an ideal position to seriously advance Arabic studies. Yet the director, Giovanni Raimondi, grew too ambitious and published many obscure texts with a limited audience. The press faced criticism for its lack of fundamental books such as grammars and basic readers. Few scholars besides those already learned in the language could make much use of these advanced texts, and the press effectively shut down upon Raimondi’s death in 1614. Granjon’s elegant type was, at the very least, saved for later use by the Vatican Press and others, and helped raise the aesthetic standards of Arabic printing. As in the image below, Granjon’s type was far more rectangular than earlier fonts. These instead resembled the curvier handwriting of the manuscripts on which they were based, while Granjon’s type resembles modern Arabic fonts.Thomas-Stanford Plate11After the Medici Press ceased operation, the center for Arabic studies shifted to the Netherlands thanks to the diligent efforts of a few key individuals. Scaliger arrived at Leiden in 1593 and swiftly set to work encouraging others to pursue Arabic. His student Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624) was arguably “the first native European to achieve true excellence in Arabic.” Erpenius assumed his position as Professor of Oriental Languages in 1613 and in the same year published his masterful Grammatica Arabica. Its type was cast by Francis Raphelengius, and served as the authoritative grammar for many years to come with several updated editions and the addition of reading passages. Erpenius unfortunately died at the young age of 40, but his student and successor Jacob Golius (1596–1667) carried on in the same vein and produced an Arabic lexicon in 1653. His brother Petrus was then serving in Antioch, and Golius relied on this connection to build an extensive library of Arabic manuscripts rivaled only by Edward Pococke’s collection in England (Toomer, 43-45).

By this point, there was still no press capable of printing Arabic in England. Scholars instead would travel to Leiden to have them printed with Raphelengius, or rely on unsatisfactory woodcuts. Although William Bedwell succeeded in purchasing the type from the Raphelengius brothers when he visited Leiden, what arrived in England in 1614 were worn out types rather than the matrices from which fresh new types could be cast. England’s entry into Arabic printing was thus delayed until 1652 when Selden published Mare Clausum. Erpenius and Golius’ philological texts expanded the possibility for further Arabic study not only because students could be self-taught but also because they encouraged standardization in the teaching. Even after difficult financial setbacks and the technical challenges of a language with varying letter forms, the printing presses ultimately made it possible for serious advancements in the early modern period. As in the case of Greek, advances in typesetting expanded access to printed texts and made it possible for early modern scholars to learn the language from a grammar, instead of having to rely on someone who already knew the language (Dannenfeldt, 17).

Maryam Patton is a third-year PhD candidate at Harvard University in the dual History and Middle Eastern Studies program She studies early modern cultural and intellectual history, and her dissertation project focuses on time and temporality in the 15th and 16th century Mediterranean.

Early modern Europe Intellectual history philology

From our archive: Personal Philology

by guest contributor Richard Calis (April 2015)

For those who care to look closely enough, the world of early modern philology has many treats in store. Contrary to its reputation as nit-picking, dull scholarship, philology is in fact a discipline full of love, strife, passion and emotion. One such passionate and dedicated, yet now sadly unknown practitioner was Pieter Fontein (1708-1788). A student of the renowned Dutch philologist Tiberius Hemsterhuis in Leiden, Fontein became a teacher at the Mennonite Church in Amsterdam in 1739 and would remain so until his death some fifty years later. Over his career, Fontein amassed an impressive collection of Latin and Greek classics, all of which he bequeathed to his church, except for a small group of related books on the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. It is this collection of forty-three Theophrastiana (currently in the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam) that brings back to life the philological achievements of a scholar who never made it into the annals of classical philology.

Casaubon's annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.
Casaubon’s annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

It is still unclear when exactly Fontein amassed his books, but our story begins in 1754, when he was spending his days reading a rather special book from the collection of the then-famous botanist and Professor of Anatomy Willem Röell (1700-1775). The book that Fontein found so absorbing was a 1542 edition of Theophrastus’ Opera Omnia, printed at the famous Froben press in Basel. Moreover, the book was nothing less than a working copy of that great Theophrastus scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), who, over a century earlier, had adorned its pages with numerous notes and annotations.

In 1591, Casaubon had published his own edition of Theophrastus’ Characteres, a lively set of character sketches known for its problematic text and manuscript transmission yet also the philosopher’s most popular work. Ever since, Casaubon was known to the world of scholarship as the single most important authority on Theophrastus, a reputation that was not lost on Fontein. In fact, the primary reason that Fontein took an interest in Röell’s book was because of Casaubon’s marginal notes. This, at least, is suggested by the way in which Fontein treated them: when he went to examine the book, Fontein bought and brought with him his own clean copy of the same 1541 edition —no mean feat more than two centuries after its publication— and herein copied nearly every single annotation that Casaubon had left in his book. For pages on end, Fontein faithfully transcribed Casaubon’s notes in his own beautifully regular eighteenth-century hand.

Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.
Casaubon’s marginal notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Fontein's transcription of Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.
Fontein’s transcription of Casaubon’s annotations. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.














We may pause for a moment to appreciate the great intimacy of this —to my knowledge— unique practice of relocating marginalia from an annotated copy to a pristine one. To Fontein, these were not only notes explicating a text, but also the material evidence of the reading and annotating practice of one of his greatest predecessors. We know of scholars who organized their information in commonplace books but buying a two hundred year old edition to copy notes in was not everyday practice; not even for Fontein, whose book collection does not seem to include any other such inscribed copies. It will come as little surprise then that Fontein would even go on to buy Röell’s book in 1767, when the latter found himself in rough financial waters. After all, a transcription of Casaubon’s annotations was surely no replacement for the original.

By then, Fontein had steadily collected more and more Theophrastus editions dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some of them were densely annotated. This collecting spree was undoubtedly aimed at gathering every bit of information on Theophrastus that was available. As another copy from his library attests, Fontein was concurrently working on his own edition of the Characteres, Originally, he drafted his material in a small, handy octavo reprint of Casaubon’s edition, published in Cambridge in 1712. Yet today it can hardly be recognized as such: the edition is now completely interleaved with huge folio-sized pages, all of them awash with Fontein’s corrections, notes and interpretations. From these ‘additions’, one can observe how he continuously reworked the text. Fontein crossed out sentences, rewrote entire paragraphs, emended or explicated words, and crammed new notes in the margins of the margins. There are at least four drafted introductions to the work and its author, some prolegomena and countless comments and notes on the Greek; horror vacui takes on a whole new meaning.

Fontein's working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.
Fontein’s working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Sadly, the project came to nothing, as Fontein died before its completion. But even in his final days, the philologist’s passion for the project burned steadily. In his will —made in 1769, specified in 1775, and now in the Amsterdam City Archives— Fontein gifted all his books to the Mennonite Church with the sole exception of the Theophrastiana, which he wanted to keep to himself. We can almost see how the elderly Fontein with only a handful of necessary books unceasingly fine-tuned his views on a notoriously elusive text, while continuously adding new material to his already massive commentary. Again and again he kept revising, never gave up, and continually worked on a more accurate edition, with Theophrastus on his mind and his cherished Casaubon on his desk. What a character he was.

Richard Calis is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University. He has worked for Annotated Books Online (ABO)—which provides online access to three of Fontein’s books— and is predominantly interested in books and their readers, antiquarianism, and the history of scholarship. His dissertation offers a microhistory of Martin Crusius (1526-1607) and his ethnographic interests in the Ottoman Greek world.