Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from March 2020

30 March 2020

Sân khấu: a Vietnamese magazine on theatre and performing arts

Today’s guest blog is by Haewon Lee, who is currently working on a Ph.D. at SOAS, University of London, on safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, with special reference to Vietnamese Lên đồng.

Sân Khấu, which means “stage” or “theatre" in Vietnamese, is a monthly (bi-monthly in the early stages) magazine on theatre and performing arts. Although it has now faded into Vietnamese history, with the final volume published in 2002, the British Library holds a long run of Sân Khấu from 1977 to 2002, covering almost the entire life of the journal (16671.c.4).

Image 1
Front cover of Sân Khấu, no.17 (1-1979). British Library, 16671.c.4   

I am writing this post to raise awareness of this fantastic magazine so that more people can make good use of it for various purposes. The table below indicates the available volumes in the British Library. However, when requesting an item, it is necessary to specify which particular issues are required. As many first-time users will probably not know which volume to consult, attachments are provided via the links below, giving the table of contents for each volume.

Table: British Library holdings for Sân Khấu, 1977-2002 (16671.c.4)
Image 1 (table)

Downloadable PDFs of images of the contents pages of Sân Khấu for the following years:
Download San Khau 1977-1991
Download San Khau 1992-1994
Download San Khau 1995-1999
Download San Khau 2000-2002

Each volume usually contains around ten sections, with four core sections common to all the volumes. Theatre Issues (Những Vấn Đề Sân Khấu), Foreign Theatre (Sân Khấu Nước Ngoài), Cultural Exchange/Communications (Trao Đổi), and New Plays/Theatre News (Vở diễn mới/Tin sân khấu). Theatre Issues is the section for updates in the field. The editorials in this section discuss important issues such as fundraising and conserving the traditions.  The Foreign Theatre section covers a wide range of international topics of relevance to the theatre. The Cultural Exchange/Communications section contains not only interviews with artists and performers but also scholars’ discussions concerning ways to integrate traditional and contemporary art forms. Finally, the New Plays/ Theatre News section introduces new plays in Vietnam to the readers. On occasions it provides information about certain troupes who have made names for themselves by performing abroad.

Image 2
Front cover; introduction to a troupe of performers; and the table of contents, Sân Khấu, no. 152 (12-1993), pp. 1-3. British Library, 16671.c.4

This magazine is especially valuable for researchers for two reasons. First, the magazine covers not only the Viet people but also ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. For example, I was editing the paper I wrote on the Cham peoples’ impact on Bóng rỗi performance in southern Vietnam. The main purpose of the editing process was to fill in the gaps on Vietnamese perspectives on Cham performing arts, and I found numerous thought-provoking perspectives by Vietnamese scholars on Cham performing art in this magazine. Secondly, it gives me insightful ideas for my doctoral research. My doctoral research is on Vietnamese beliefs and practices in a folk religion called Lên đồng or Mother Goddess, and the current issues they are facing in terms of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage since 2016 when it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This magazine has been valuable for me my research as it also covers various opinions on the issues of "stage-isation” of intangible cultural heritage not only in Vietnam but also worldwide. Concerns about “stage-isation" have been raised frequently as an issue of grave concern either in the Theatre Issues section or the Cultural Exchange/Communications section by experts in Vietnam since the late 1970s. Other matters of interest can also be found since each issue of the journal starts with the section called Theatre Issues

I intend to promote this magazine to reach more readers by introducing its full scope. The main focus of this magazine is the four key traditional performances in Vietnam: Chèo, Múa rối nước from northern Vietnam, Cải Lương , and Tuồng or Hát bội from southern Vietnam (see the blog post by Sud Chonchirdsin on Tuồng or Hát bội) Histories, contemporary issues, and reviews of individual performances are also discussed in this magazine. Additionally, each issue introduces the troupes presenting these traditional performances, along with contact information for the troupe and profiles of each member. This information is helpful for those who conduct fieldwork and need more networks in Vietnam.

Looking closely at the content, some special issues for certain months might grab the attention of a broader audience. For example, part of the October or November issues of the magazine celebrate the Russian revolution in 1917, and in these issues, contemporary issues in Russian theatre or cultural exchanges between Vietnam and the Soviet Union were featured. International perspectives are not only confined to communist states. Almost every issue has a section called Foreign Theatre, which might include essays on Broadway productions in the US and Shakespeare in the UK. These special issues and the coverage of general topics make this magazine more historically valuable as it allows readers to fathom Vietnamese perspectives  on various topics relating to theatre and performance. 

Image 3
Changes in front covers over time. Sân Khấu, no.6 (5,6-1977), no.20 (5-1979), no.165 (1-1995), no.225 (1-2000), no.242 (6-2002), and no.244 (8-2002). British Library, 16671.c.4    

Apart from the special issues, other features of the magazine are noteworthy. The special issues, which can be goldmines for researchers on Vietnam studies, became more frequent in the late 1970s. A different approach was apparent in the 1990s, when a number of “pretty” female artists were featured frequently in the magazine. During that period, the magazine seemed to be slowly losing its academic identity through the inclusion of more advertisements and articles on general lifestyle issues, as well as health and  beauty. However, in the very final stage, before it ceased publication in the early 2000s, the magazine returned to its roots and featured more editorials and reviews of plays. Reading through issues of Sân Khấu in the British Library can provide a rewarding journey through the lifecycle of the magazine.

Haewon Lee  ccownwork

Haewon Lee trained as an anthropologist, and has wide interests that include ritual practices and performing arts in Southeast Asian countries, and studies on intangible cultural heritage. She earned her BA in Vietnamese and Communications from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, while her MA dissertation (SOAS, 2017) and other writings mainly focus on the meaning of of gender in Lên đồng, a ritual practice in Vietnam. Her interest in ritual practices of mediumship in Vietnam led on to her current doctoral research at SOAS.  Haewon can be contacted by email on

Note from Annabel Gallop, Head of the Southeast Asia section:
When Haewon Lee attended the annual Asian and African Collections Doctoral Students Day at the British Library on 20 January 2020, she asked if there was any quick way of finding out the contents of individual issues of Sân Khấu. My short answer was no: there was no alternative to ordering up every single issue of the journal to the Reading Room.  This Haewon duly did, slowly and methodically, while photographing every contents page. She then generously contacted me to ask if there was any way to make this information available to future researchers; hence this blog, with its valuable downloadable compilations of the contents pages of Sân Khấu.

23 March 2020

Ulli Beier at the British Library

I occasionally come across relevant materials in the British Library collection in connection with my original mandate on the Yorùbá print materials (see earlier blog post), even when they are not published in my target language, Yorùbá.

Recently, I stumbled on the materials on Ulli Beier, the German writer, editor, curator, and art scholar and enthusiast who lived in Nigeria between 1950 and 1966, and whose papers and other archives reside now in Osogbo at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, and at the Iwalewa Haus at Bayreuth University in Germany.

Yoruba myths Yoruba poetry

The distance between Beier’s work and the Yorùbá collections at the Library isn’t much, in fact. The writer’s creative output during his stay in Nigeria includes a number of original writings in the Yorùbá, translations from and into the language, and the promotion of work of writers producing in the language to the rest of the world. His work of translation of traditional Yorùbá poetry, myths, and proverbs into English are some of the most notable works of documentation done by any one person during that period.

His interest was in art and oral literature, but also drama, performance, and written literature. He helped introduce to an international audience, some of Nigeria’s later successful writers and artists, from Wọlé Ṣóyínká to Chinua Achebe with both of whom he founded the Mbari Club in Ìbàdàn and the M̀bárí M̀báyọ̀ in Òṣogbo; Dúró Ládípọ̀; and many others he published in Black Orpheus, a literary and arts magazine he edited. His first wife, Susanne Wenger, remained in Òṣogbo and became a devotee of the river goddess, and artist. As a creative writer himself, Beier also often published under the Yorùbá pen name "Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè".

30 years of Oshogbo art

The following are some of his works — or works related to him — that I have found in the British Library Catalogue relating to Yorùbá.

There are a number of other works about Beier, not particularly relevant to this write-up, just as there are a few dozen others about his work on Nigerian poetry in English as well as his work on Papua New Guinea. All these can be found in the British Library catalogue.

Yoruba poetry2 The stolen images

Here are a few more, including some published under his adopted Yorùbá penname “Ọ̀bọ́túndé Ìjímèrè”.

Researchers interested in the life and work of Beier will find a lot to benefit their work using the Library’s extensive collections on the man without whom a lot of what came to define Nigerian literature and art movements in the sixties and seventies may not have come to be.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.

16 March 2020

Hands off! This book is mine! Ownership inscriptions in Hebrew manuscripts

Making notes in a book in not always an act of vandalism. Sometimes it is an act of caring. I often put my name in my own books before lending them. And I am not the only one. Manuscripts were held dear by their owners. A good number of inscriptions bear witness of the care patrons took to ensure the safety of their precious books. Just like Jewish scribes, Jewish owners also developed set phrases to make their marks.
"לעולם יכתוב אדם שמו על ספרו שמא אחד מן השוק יבא ויאמר זה הספר שלי לכן כתבתי שמי..."
[People sign their books from the beginning of time lest someone come from the market and say ‘This book is mine’, thus I have written my name …]

Elishaʿ ben Gad of Ancona, ʿEts ha-daʿat. Italy, 1535/6.Or_12362_f049v
Elishaʿ ben Gad of Ancona, ʿEts ha-daʿat. Safed, 1535/6. British Library, Or 12362, f. 49v Noc

This is one of most popular phrases. Why people from the market? A marketplace was seen as a gathering place for strangers, idlers, and perhaps even rascals. Owners were concerned that such suspicious characters would claim their precious books. The owner of an 18th-century Passover hagadah expresses his opinion about such false claimers very explicitly:
"לעולם יכתוב אדם שמו על ספרו שמא יבוא ר' חמסן ור' גזלן מן השוק יאמר שלי הוא."
[People put their name into their book lest Rabbi Robber and Rabbi Thief come from the market and say ‘It is mine’.]

Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756.Or_12324_f001r det
Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756. British Library, Or 12324, f. 1r Noc

The owner of a halakhical miscellany composed an entire poem to declare his right to possess the book with a warning at the end:

הפנקס הזה מאן דאשבחתיה / החכם הוא אם הוא שוטה / במהרה ישיבהו לי בחפצי / ומכיסו מעותיו יוציא / כאשר עשיתי כי רציתיו / פרעתיהו ואחר לקחתיהו
אני ראיתי אנשי מדות / שקונים ספרים בלי מעות / רק בחמשה אצבעות / לכן חתמתי עליו שמי / כדי שלא יבא אחד מן השוק / ויעשה לי צוק / ואני נותן לו פוק.

[Whoever finds this book, be he wise or a fool, quickly return it to me in accordance with my wishes,
And take his money out of his pocket, as I did when I wanted it: I paid for it, and then I took it.
I have seen people who bought books not with money but only with their five fingers, thus I wrote my name on [this book] lest someone come from the market and bring me trouble, [because then] I will tell him to scram.]

Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f046r Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f045v
Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century. British Library, Or 10092, f. 45v and 46r Noc

As you can see, the owner wanted to make sure that his message gets through to whoever tries to take his book, so he added the first part of his little poem also in Italian on the other side of the opening:
Questo libro chi la cata sia savio o sia matto tosto tosto al mio piacere lo renda e danari della sua borscia spenda come fece io quando lo volso lo pagai e poi lo tolso
[Whoever takes hold of this book, be he wise or be he foolish, quickly quickly return it in accordance with my wishes, and spend coins from his purse as I did when I wanted it: I paid and then I took it.]

The first stanza is somewhat obscure both in Hebrew and in Italian. A possible interpretation is that if someone gets hold of this manuscript, they should return it to the owner without hesitation, and buy one for themselves.

Such Italian inscriptions in Jewish books are not something unique. In the British Library collection, there is a large number of Italian Jewish manuscripts, and they often contain notes by the owners in Italian. These notes are very often put in rhyme. Raffael Vita inscribed the following little verse into his manuscript:
Questo libro e di carta chi è orbo non lo quarda. Se piace a qualcheduno se ne vada comprar uno com' ho fatto ancor'io questo libro è mio Raffael Vita …
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. This one’s mine! Raffael Vita…]

Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. Or_10485_f009v det
Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. British Library, Or 10485 f. 9v Noc

Almost identical inscription appears at the beginning of a 17th-century miscellany, but someone, probably a later owner deleted the name at the end:
Questo libro è di carta che un … orbo non lo guarda se piacere a qualche uno si ne vada a comprar uno et per questo mi son sotto il mio nuome Jacob .. da …
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. And this is why I have my my name here Jacob….of …]

Miscellany, Italy, 17th century.Or_12360_f001v det
Miscellany, Italy, 17th century. British Library, Or 12360, f. 1v Noc

Another popular rhyme, used not only by Jewish, but also by Christian book owners, was a note in case the book would get lost:
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non si sapesse io che morire sono nato graziadio et angeli Sacerdoti son nominato. Reggio 12 aprile 1767
[If this book ever gets lost and the name of its owner is not known, I who was born to die thank God and the angels Sacerdoti is how I am called. Reggio 12 April 1767.]

Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century.Or_9902_f001r
Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century. British Library, Or 9902, f.1r Noc

As you can see, more than one member of the Sacerdoti family left their mark on this page.

The owner of a 16th-century collection of commentaries wanted to use the same rhyme, but for some reason he left the note unfinished. The most important thing - the name - is missing!
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non sapesse che lo trova che lo rende….
[If this book ever gets lost, and the name of the owners is not known, whoever finds it, whoever returns it...]

Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535.Or_9155_f002r det
Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535. British Library, Or 9155, f. 2r Noc

If you decide to compose a short poem to ensure that everyone knows this book is yours, do not forget to add your name at the end! Otherwise you might never get it back!

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections Ccownwork


08 March 2020

Serial Feminists or Idealized Beauties? Mehasin, A Women’s Magazine in the Late Ottoman Period

The first cover of Mehasin, showing a woman's portrait.
The cover of the first issue of Mehasin, appearing in September 1908. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaası, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

For much of the 20th century, official narratives in Turkey painted a stark dichotomy in the status of women before and after the reforms of the 1920s and 30s. The Ottoman period was described as a dark era of patriarchal oppression, ignorance and intolerance. It was shown as a bleak contrast to the Republican era, when women were allowed to participate fully in the life of the nation. The Republic proudly advertised its feminist credentials through suffrage (granted in 1930) and women’s access to a host of occupations, pastimes and means of personal expression. This perception, however, began to change in earnest following the 1980 coup . The bloody repression of the Left squeezed progressive energies towards a post-modernist blossoming in Turkey. Women’s experiences, stories and memories started coming to the fore in the cultural realm, and soon academics were challenging both the narrative of female emancipation post-1923, and the story of Ottoman brutishness. Groundbreaking scholars such as Deniz Kandiyoti, Fatmagül Berktay, Serpil Çakır, Aynur Demirdirek, Ayşe Durakbaşa, Zehra Kabasakal Arat and many others paved the way for an appreciation of the complexities of gender, sexuality and power in both the Ottoman and Republican periods. In doing so, they ensured that women’s studies would become a core component of understanding the country’s past, present and future.

From the Edict of Gülhane onwards, and particularly from 1910 up to the dissolution of the Empire in 1923, women were of greater and greater interest to the Ottoman élite. The reasons for this are varied, and partially motivated by the sudden drop in productive and educated male labour brought about by a succession of wars and territorial loses. In order to explore such dynamics, the aforementioned scholars have occasionally made use of late Ottoman periodical publications targeted at women. Women were frequently a topic of periodicals both before and after the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, but they weren’t always the agents, or the audiences, of such works. Male authors discussed women as objects of beauty or subjects of study in literary, reformist, pedagogical and medical publications in Ottoman Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Armeno-Turkish, Karamanlitic and Ladino. They did not necessarily consider them, however, as active readers engaged in a conversation, real or implied. Throughout the 1990s, such trends were examined by a new wave of young scholars, many of them women. Hatice Özen, Ayşe Zeren Enis, Nevin Yursever Ateş, and Tatiana Filippova have all written about periodicals appearing in this period with a particular focus on their interaction with female Ottoman citizens. They have dissected them as specimens of publishing industry history, economic change, and state-sponsored modernization drives, among other phenomena. Most importantly, however, they have sought to make use of them as actual evidence of women’s lives, roles and dreams in the late Ottoman era, beyond ideological narratives.

Sketch of a woman on the cover of issue 8 of MehasinPhotograph of a woman with pearls on cover of issue 5 of Mehasin
The covers of issues 8 and 5 of Mehasin, showing the magazines promotion of women deemed "modern" through both illustration and photography. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaası, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

The Turkish and Turkic Collections at the British Library contain a number of these women-themed periodicals from the late-Ottoman period. Among the more visually appealing of these is Mehasin (Beauties), which appeared monthly in 1908-09. The masthead describes it as an illustrated periodical particular to ladies (“hanımlara mahsus musavver gazete”). In terms of illustration, Mehasin does not disappoint: it contains photographs and drawings of women and children, clothes, accessories, furniture, machines, and locations both familiar and exotic. These accompany articles about a myriad of different topics, many of which might be classified as being pedantic or socially-reformist in nature. The purpose of Mehasin was not necessarily to provide an outlet for Ottoman women to discuss their lives and their positions in society, or to air their grievances against the patriarchy under which they lived. Rather, it was a conduit through which women could be educated and shaped by a mostly male élite, refashioned as (often Europeanized) models of the new Ottoman social structure.

Painting of European woman and masthead of magazine
European painting in issue 7 of Mehasin, along with the tagline "A nation’s women are a measure of its level of development" just below the masthead of the article. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaası, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the periodical’s ethos comes from the tagline that appeared under the masthead of every issue: “A nation’s women are a measure of its level of development” (“Bir milletin nisvanı derece-i terakkisinin mizanidir”), attributed to Abdülhak Hamit (Tarhan). Other examples come from the title and content of articles, such as “Kindness within the family” (“Aile arasında nezaket”; issue 3) and “Woman’s Social Standing” (“Kadının mevki’-i ictimaisi”, issue 11). What does make Mehasin fairly interesting as a social phenomenon, however, is that it sought to do this through an appeal to women’s sensibilities, rather than an application of blunt male authority. Women were here being brought into the mandate and vision of the nation – a fairly new source of political power in the scheme of Ottoman history – but they weren’t necessarily given the opportunity to articulate that vision, or to shape its impact on their lives.

Photographs of Queen Ana of Spain
Photographs from an article on Queen Ena of Spain in issue 4 of Mehasin. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaası, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

Mehasin was certainly not revolutionary; at least not in the sense that later female Turkish thinkers, such Halide Edip Adıvar, Sabiha Sertel or Suat Derviş, would have applied this term. It was clearly royalist, given the way that it focused on various members of European royal families (but not those of the Ottoman dynasty, I should note). It also concentrated more on ways for women to become “modern” rather than what men might do in their own lives to lessen the oppressive impact of patriarchy on their female compatriots. Beyond this, however, Mehasin’s writers and editors betray another interesting component of the nexus between women and modernization in the late Ottoman period. While gender was clearly emphasized, so too were race and class, albeit in a far subtler manner. It was not just the royals who were European: many of the model women, too, were white, upper-class Europeans, exemplary of an aspirational womanhood that must have been exceptionally foreign the majority of female Ottoman citizens. An appeal to intersectionality in the interests of women’s liberation was definitely not on the cards.

Images of women in "old style" dress from the Ottoman Empire
As part of an article about train travel in issue 9, images of women in "old-style" dress. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaası, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

Issue 3 of the magazine is particularly informative in this regard. It contains a series of articles and portraits of famous women and “beauties”. These include Sarah Bernhardt, the famous American actress; women modeling the latest Parisian fashions; French, German, English, Russian, Italian, Spanish and American “beauties”; and Mrs. Rosa Louis, “England’s Most Famous Chef,” who is the subject of a long article. Indeed, the only Ottoman whose photograph finds its way into the issue is the actor Burhaneddin Bey, who is pictured both in and out of costume. Similarly, issue 9 contains a large article entitled “Marriage Problems” (“Müşkilât-i izdivaç”), which does reference the upper and lower classes. Nonetheless, it emphasizes that the main audience for the piece are middle-class women concerned about socially-appropriate conduct on issues of engagement, marriage and conjugal bliss. Where we do get images of local women’s attire is in the tenth issue, in an article about… the railway, and a trip into the interior of Anatolia. Even then, the author chooses to provide not photographs of contemporary Ottoman women, but rather European-style paintings of “old dress” or “our grandmothers’ attire”. The editor was apparently only interested in women who did not match his aspirations for the average middle-class Ottoman woman if they could be of use in buttressing self-alienating ideologies, as above, or if they fed a colonialist perspective on the women of Asia and Africa, as seen in “Women of the Whole World” (“Butun Dünya Kadınları”) articles in issues 6 and 7.

Images of airplanes in flight.
Advances in the technology of flight in Europe, from issue 9 of Mehasin. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaası, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

What is the source of such attitudes towards women’s behaviour? Mehasin was published by the Ottoman author and literary scholar Mehmet Rauf. Rauf, who was fluent in English and French, was particularly keen on psychology and the inclusion of psychological components into his literary and theatrical works. Perhaps it was this inclination for the study of the mind that led him to create a magazine that was intended to shape the thoughts of middle-class Ottoman women. To be fair, his was a goal that went well beyond the traditional domains afforded to women. He sought to expose his readers to the wonders of science and technology – such as the exposé on air travel in Europe in issue 9 – just as much as he looked to force upon them a vision of European femininity. But Mehmet Rauf’s preference for enlightenment over emancipation hardly made him novel. As Sibel Bozdoğan has shown, a long line of men throughout the Ottoman and Republican periods preferred the “modern” management of women to sharing power. As radical as it might have been at the time, their attitudes were yet another element crowding out women’s voices from the debate about Turkish identity and society.

Given that such views were far from uncommon throughout the 20th century, this does beg the question why a magazine such as Mehasin, or indeed other Ottoman periodicals dedicated to women, would have been forgotten or ignored for so long. One reason is undoubtedly the script issue. As these were produced prior to 1928, they are in the Arabic script, which the vast majority of Turkish citizens throughout the life of the Republic have been unable to read. Another, deeper, cause of ignorance, however, is an official policy, up until the AKP era, of seeking to downplay or erase the Ottoman past within narratives of Turkish history. As the historiographer Büşra Ersanlı Behar has explored in her studies of official histories in Turkey, the Ottoman past was either a convenient negative Other for the Republic, or it simply was not. Explorations of the complex nature of Ottoman society were not encouraged. Luckily for us, historians who bucked the dominant trend have helped preserve and expand upon the importance of such publications for reconstructing social experiences in the late Ottoman Empire. In doing so, they’ve helped paint a richer picture of Turkish women’s long-term struggle for liberation and equality, including when that meant breaking free from men’s tropes about the “modern woman”.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
CCBY Image

04 March 2020

Until the donkey ascends the ladder: Hebrew scribal formulae

Johanan, having copied a manuscript in Tivoli in 1514 in neat Sefardi script, describes himself in the colophon as “the smallest of the disciples, who laps up the dust of the feet of the sages, the servant of their disciples… Johanan ben Jacob Siracusi.”

Midrash on the Minor Prophets. Tivoli, 1514. Harley_ms_5704_f199r det
Midrash on the Minor Prophets. Tivoli, 1514. British Library, Harley MS 5704, f. 199r Noc

A colophon, meaning “final point” in Greek, is a note that provides details about the production of the manuscript such as when and where it was copied, who copied it for whom, and so on. Jewish scribes often used certain set phrases in their colophons; “the dust of the feet of the sages” was one of them. The expression, portraying the scribe as a humble, insignificant fellow, probably comes from the Mishnah: “let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:4)

The phrase became popular as an expression of humility in Jewish rabbinical literature, and it appears also in Hebrew colophons from various eras and lands. Here is another example from 17th-century Yemen: a certain Hayyim on the Mishnah calls himself “the smallest of the scribes, dust of the feet of the sages, the young Hayyim ben Shalom ben David ben Isaac ben Solomon ben Jacob al-Ḥagagi”. We should not necessarily imagine Hayyim as a young man, though. “Young” here is a synonym for insignificant or minute. Also, notice that humility does not prevent him from listing his ancestors back to five generations!

Maimonides’ Commentary on Seder Moʿed. Yemen, 1652. Or_2218_f096v det
Maimonides’ Commentary on Seder Moʿed. Yemen, 1652. British Library, Or 2218, f. 96v Noc

In 1476, another scribe uses a very similar phrase in his colophon: “I am the youngest among the disciples, who embraces the dust of the feet of the sages, Moses ben Masud ben Jacob…”

Digest of several Talmud tractates by David ben Levi of Narbonne. 1476.Add_ms_19778_f151r det
Digest of several Talmud tractates by David ben Levi of Narbonne. 1476. British Library, Add MS 19778, f. 151r Noc

While humble, and insignificant, Moses also make sure that his work pays off: in exchange for his efforts he asked for protection against ill fate: “Blessed He who helps his servant… who gives strength to the tired … may no harm befall the scribe not now and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that our father Jacob dreamt about.”

“Until the donkey ascends the ladder”: that is, never, since the donkey is not ever likely to climb up the ladder. This is another nice example of set phrases Jewish scribes used in colophons. It first cropped up in some 13th-century Ashkenazi (German) codices, and has in time developed into a very popular formula. “Be strong and strengthened, no harm befall the scribe, not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder” writes Nehemiah ben Jacob at the end of a 14th-century Ashkenazi festival prayer book.

Festival prayer book. Germany or Eastern Mediterranean, 1349.Add_ms_10456_f172v det
Festival prayer book. Germany or Eastern Mediterranean, 1349. British Library, Add MS 10456, f. 172v Noc

Another 14th-century scribe inscribed his colophon at the end of the carmina figurata – text written to form various shapes – here forming the word hazak, meaning ‘be strong’. His colophon, like many others, starts with the same word, hazak: “Be strong and strengthened, may no harm befall the scribe, not today and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamt about.”

Harley_ms_1861_f219r Detail of Abraham's Pentateuch. Harley_ms_1861_f219r det
'Abraham's Pentateuch and Rashi'. Germany, 14th century. British Library, Harley MS 1861, f. 219r, with detail Noc

The second half of the rhyme refers to the biblical story of Jacob, who in a dream saw a ladder reaching the heavens with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:10-19). So what could be the connection between angels and donkeys? The Babylonian Talmud has an answer: “If the early generations are characterized as sons of angels, we are the sons of men. And if the early generations are characterized as the sons of men, we are akin to donkeys.”

Jacob’s ladder. Golden Haggadah. Spain, 14th century. Add_ms_27210_f004v det
Jacob’s ladder. Golden Haggadah. Spain, 14th century. British Library, Add MS 27210, f. 4v Noc

We can agree that while angels can ascend and descend between earth and heavens with ease, donkeys would have a much more difficult time.

There is another possible source of this phrase that has nothing to do with Jacob’s ladder, and it comes from a midrash (a type of biblical interpretation): “Four things were said by the wise: As the sack can be washed white, so knowledge can be found with the ignorant; when the donkey ascends the ladder, then you can find wisdom with fool; when the kid puts up with the panther, then the daughter-in-law can put up with her mother-in-law; when you find an entirely white raven, then you find a good woman” (Otsar midrashim, Hupat Eliyahu 139). The donkey ascending the ladder is thus a metaphor for impossibility or improbability.

In a 16th-century codex from Safed, someone crossed out the bit about the donkey in the colophon. Perhaps it did not seem appropriate or humorous for everyone? “I, Solomon Ezobi, the youngest among the disciples in the yeshiva of Safed … copied this book… be the will of God that no harm befall the scribe until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamt.”

Kabbalistic treatise Or_6835_f235r det
Kabbalistic treatise. Safed, 1524. British Library, Or 6835, f. 235r Noc

All of these colophons were from neatly executed manuscripts. The last example is less orderly, scribbled down by a more cursive hand: “This Birkat ha-mazon [Grace After Meals] is finished with the help of the Lord…. May no harm befall the scribe not today and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamed. Amen selah … I Joseph bar Gershon the scribe”

Fragment of a prayer book, 18th century? Arundel_or_50_f082v
Fragment of a prayer book, 18th century? British Library, Arundel Or 50, f. 82v Noc

The doodles under the colophon seem to be added by the same person but they have nothing to do with donkeys or ladders. As far as I know there is only one manuscript with a little doodle depicting a donkey climbing a ladder held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan (Cod. Milan. Nr. 7). Sadly it has not been digitised yet, but here is a reproduction of its reproduction!

Donkey climbing a ladder
From Alexander Scheiber, Essays on Jewish folklore and comparative literature (Budapest, 1985), p. 3.

Composed by me, Zsofi in Shevat 5780. Be strong and strengthened,
may no harm befall the scribe, not today and not ever,
until the donkey ascends the ladder
that Jacob our forefather
dreamt about.


Zsofi Buda, Asian and African collections Ccownwork