11 February 2021
An Earl, a collection, and a shopping list: Mail-order military manuscripts
A lithographed wish-list of titles on Arabic military science testifies to the frustrated literary ambitions of a king’s son.
Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb. London, s.n. 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
Shopping for books in the early nineteenth century
In these days of home delivery, we are used to the concept that (almost) whatever we wish to acquire, from takeaways and groceries to toys, clothes, and books, may be obtained without leaving the comfort – or confines – of the home. But two hundred years ago, for those with very specific literary interests, the acquisition of books or hand-written manuscripts could necessitate great dedication to the cause: months or years of foreign travel, tireless enquiry, and great expense.
Nonetheless, for those in possession of power, good contacts, and deep pockets, the pursuit of rare books could be conducted remotely, to a degree. And just as today’s shopping websites allow users to compile their ‘wishlists’, one remarkable document compiled at the behest of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster (1794-1842), tells a nineteenth-century tale of mail-order manuscripts.
The life and literary interests of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster
Eldest illegitimate son of Prince William (1765-1837, William IV from 1830), FitzClarence devoted much energy to appealing for funds and honours from his father, from whom he became estranged. Prone to drinking and gambling, publicly mocked in satirical sketches, and afflicted with depression, he has gone down in history as an unfortunate figure, committing suicide in March 1842 at the age of 48.
Unflattering caricature of FitzClarence as ‘Bum Puff’, wearing Oriental slippers and accompanied by papers bearing pseudo-Arabic characters (British Museum 1868,0808.9395.
However, there was another side to FitzClarence, one overshadowed by his sad end.
After military service in India (1815-17) he travelled home via Egypt, later publishing his account of the journey. Pursuing his developing interest in Asian history and literature, FitzClarence became a founder member and from 1828, Vice-President of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, in which role he supported the publication and translation of Arabic texts via the Society’s Oriental Translation Fund, still operational today.
Anonymous portrait of the young George FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, c. 1810-20 (British Museum 1918,0107.70)
Subsequently, FitzClarence combined his interest in military matters with his scholarly and literary passions, initiating an ambitious project to author a comprehensive history of the military sciences in Muslim societies.
Military science in the Arabic written tradition
Hundreds of Arabic treatises on military science have been composed, re-arranged and translated into Turkish, Persian and other languages since at least the ʿAbbāsid period (750-1258). They are often categorised under the general label of furūsīyah (horsemanship), encompassing equestrianism, the mastery of mounted manoeuvres, polo, shooting at targets, and horseback hunting (a luxurious illustrated example of this genre is this copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah fī ta‘allum a‘māl al-furūsīyah (Add MS 18866).
Illustration of two horsemen wheeling around, with a sword in each one's hand on the horse's back. Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah by Muḥammad ibn ‘Īsá ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥanafī al-Aqṣarā’ī, dated 10 Muḥarram 773/25 July 1371 (BL Add MS 18866, f. 135r)
However, the Arabic military sciences also include subjects such as the manufacture and use of weapons like the bow and arrow, sword, mace, lance (Add MS 14056, ff. 1v-10v; ff. 11r-18v) and spear; equine medicine and horse-training (Add MS 14056, ff. 19r-123v, Add MS 23416); tactical theory and skills for the battlefield; war machines (Add MS 14055) and explosive devices; military management and bureaucracy (Or 9016), and the etiquette of engaging the enemy and dividing the spoils of conquest.
Many texts take the form of didactic, practical manuals, with many surviving manuscripts today dating to the highly militarised Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) as well as its Ottoman successor in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Add MS 20736).
Wishing to gather as many of these primary sources as possible towards his magnum opus, FitzClarence purchased extensively (Add MS 14056 and 14055). Not mastering the necessary linguistic skills, he enlisted the promising young Austrian Orientalist Aloys Sprenger (1813-93), who had recently relocated to London, as secretary and research assistant in his quest.
In addition to FitzClarence’s acquisitions, he and Sprenger borrowed and compiled all that the libraries and private collections of Britain had to offer on the subject, as a note inside a copy of three treatises on military science (Or 3631) borrowed from the antiquarian and astronomer John Lee, Né Fiott (1783-1866), attests, its melancholy codicil ‘Returned August 1842’ hinting at the tragic event to come.
They also travelled across Europe together, visiting libraries in search of relevant texts in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian and Hindustani. During this period Sprenger also obtained a medical degree ‘on the side’ with a thesis on the development of Arab medicine.
The ‘Wishlist’ of military texts
But FitzClarence wanted still more, and in 1840 issued – with Sprenger as ghost-writer– a 160-page Catalogue of books that We desire to purchase and subject matter clarifying the type of books We desire to obtain – the titles and details of which We do not know – on the study of warfare (Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb).
Title page, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb, London, 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 1)
Written in Sprenger’s Arabic hand and lithographed, this veritable shopping list opens with a preface in ornate classical Arabic literary style (p. 1), followed by an explanation of FitzClarence’s aim in writing the list, and a long description of the subjects of interest (pp. 1-83). The latter range widely, from Qurʾānic and legal precepts relating to war; jihād; armies and warfare throughout the history of Islam from the early caliphates to the Seljuqs, Timurids, Ottomans and Mughals; military management and financing; terminology; different styles of warfare (mounted or on foot); horses; apparel; weaponry; armour; training; parades; manoeuvres; famous teachers; desired qualities in a soldier, and numerous other fields of enquiry.
Then are listed hundreds of known titles on warfare, horsemanship, and weaponry (pp. 84-106) and military and political history (pp. 106-156), followed by an author index (pp. 156-160). The titles, often cited alongside biographical details of the authors, testify to Sprenger’s exhaustive research and vast knowledge of the field. In a sense, this remarkable compendium saw the Sprenger/FitzClarence team take an unlikely honorary place in the rich history of Arabic bio-bibliographic writings.
Diagram (left) of the layout of a royal fortress from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah (BL Add MS 18866, f. 209v), and (right) the copy of the central part of this image in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
The work also contains examples of diagrams sometimes found in the Arabic treatises sought, labelled images of weapons apparently functioning more as a terminological inventory for the author or reader’s benefit than as faithful reproductions from the manuscripts, and as some drawings apparently taken from European military texts.
Diagram (left) of ‘winged’ insignia from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah (BL Add MS 18866, f. 214v), and (right) copies of this and other insignia in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 61)
An untimely end
This document was clearly aimed at Arab book dealers and agents with access to Arabic manuscripts, but further research is needed to establish whether FitzClarence’s wishlist directly resulted in any acquisitions. His suicide only two years later stopped the project in its tracks, and the planned History of Military Science among the Muslim Peoples which by now had mushroomed into a vast account of warfare including the pre-Islamic societies of Persia, China, and Indian, never came to fruition.
Having lost his patron, Sprenger sailed to India as a surgeon, later continuing his scholarly career as principal of various colleges in Delhi and Calcutta, and researcher-cataloguer of Indian collections including the Imperial libraries of Awadh (Oudh). He also amassed a manuscript library of his own, at least part of which now forms the Sprenger Collection at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz.
FitzClarence’s son William, the second Earl of Munster (1824-1901), inherited his father’s debts but not his interests, and certain of FitzClarence’s manuscripts were soon auctioned on 6 April 1843 (Add MS 14056, Add MS 14055). The British Museum purchased some volumes, while others were obtained at a later sale on 27 March 1855 (Add MS 20736).
Although FitzClarence’s book never came to be, copies of the wishlist remain in many libraries as a testament to his thwarted literary ambitions. One can only wonder what he would have made of the digital, virtual libraries of today in which his dream of access to ever more of the world’s Arabic military texts – and millions of others – is increasingly coming to pass.
Chaghatai, M. Ikram, ‘Dr. Aloys Sprenger (1813–1893): His Life and Contribution to Urdu Language and Literature’, Iqbal Review, 36 (1995), pp. 77–99.
FitzClarence, George Augustus Frederick, Journal of a Route Across India, Through Egypt, to England, in the Latter End of the Year 1817, and the Beginning of 1818 (London: John Murray), 1819.
The Earl of Munster's obituary in 'Proceedings of the nineteenth anniversary meeting of the society' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 7 (1843), pp. i-xxi.
Sprenger, Aloys and George Augustus Frederick FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb (London, s. n., 1840). British Library copy 14598.c.1. Digital copy at Princeton University Library, digitised by Hathi Trust
Sprenger, Aloys, A catalogue of the Arabic, Persian and Hindu'sta'ny manuscripts, of the libraries of the King of Oudh, Vol. 1 (Calcutta: J. Thomas for the Baptist Press), 1854.
Wright, Jo, 'Sir Thomas Reade: Knight, ‘Nincumpoop’ and Collector of Antiquities', Asian and African Studies Blog (2014).
— , An Earl, a Collection and a Gun: the Curious Provenance of a British Library Manuscript', Qatar Digital Library (2014).