Diversity in Difficult Times

Scheide M141. The small volume is well worn. Note the loops which would have helped keep the covers closed when carried, as well as the discoloring drop of wax at the bottom—indicators that this volume traveled for liturgical use.

Funeral Office in Greek and Arabic
Egypt or Palestine, 1000s–1100s

All things come to an end, and for some medieval Christians, Scheide M141 helped celebrate that end. The manuscript contains funeral rites in Greek and Arabic, prepared for a community of monastic men and women. This linguistic mix as well as the handwriting point to an origin in the Holy Land or Egypt sometime between 1000 and 1200. This was the period when Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade, promoting a popular view that at least some Christians were being oppressed under Muslim rule.

Scheide M141 attests to both the resilience and the stresses of Christian communities during this time. The manuscript is small, meant for an individual rather than a choir. And it is plain, the work of two or perhaps three scribes writing in black ink with occasional titles and initials in red. Only two decorations occur, a pair of black and red banners marking where the male and female kanons begin (fols. 38r and 52r).

This was a useful feature for readers unfamiliar with the manuscript and Greek funeral rites. We might imagine the manuscript being used in a small monastic community for which deaths and burials were rare, while the inclusion of both male and female rites suggests that Scheide M141 served a small network of such communities. Despite this, it seems like the manuscript was rarely wanted, and when it was brought out, the dead person wanted it not at all.

Scheide M141, fols. 30v-31r. A finger print on the left suggests the scribes were careless in the workshop, while the ragged edges point to a careless owner, who neglected the volume as bugs or rodents consumed it.

The mixture of Greek and Arabic further affirms that the manuscript was made for and perhaps by individuals unfamiliar with the funeral office. After each section of the text, which combines prayers and scriptural quotations in Greek, an Arabic translation of the biblical text follows. Initially, these translations appear as a sort of appendix at the end of each section, but midway through, the Arabic writer made an error. Instead of translating the biblical passage at hand, the writer copied the translation for an earlier passage. The Greek text then proceeds without space to fix the error, but someone soon noticed. In subsequent sections, the Greek and Arabic are found in parallel to ensure that the translation matches the original.

The most likely explanation is that the scribes preparing Scheide M141 combined text from a Greek exemplar with Arabic translations prepared on a separate sheet. The scribes simply shuffled in the wrong text. This suggests that the writers had an unequal understanding of Greek and Arabic, and given that they were adding the Arabic, the intended readers and perhaps the scribes themselves probably knew Arabic better than Greek. Certainly, later readers were more comfortable with Arabic, using it in a rapid script to jot down notes or test pens in the margins of the manuscript.

Scheide M141, fol. 37v-38r. Arabic translations of scriptural passages appear on the left, followed by more haphazard notes toward the bottom. The black and red banner helped readers find the second male kanon, which begins here, and one reader flagged the margin with an Arabic note as well. These are all signs that this community used Greek in its religious rites but Arabic in its day-to-day business.

While it might seem easy to equate Arabic with Islam today, the scribes and readers of Scheide M141 did not. Nonetheless, their ready use of Arabic indicates that even Christian monks in the Near East were adopting cultural cues from the Muslim elite around the time the Crusades. Scheide M141 therefore served an Arabizing population, that is, a community adopting the Arabic language and possibly other cultural features as well. But the monastic communities of Scheide M141 also wanted to retain Greek as a privileged language for religious rites. This makes the manuscript an awkward relic marking both assimilation and difference—an ability for Greek-speaking Christians to continue their practices under Muslim rule but their movement away from Greek language and potentially from Christian traditions as well.

This manuscript also reveals tensions within Christian communities. Deceased monks might be commemorated with one of two funeral kanons, spanning a total of 43 folios. Female religious, however, might be commemorated with only one option that spans a quick 11 folios. And just as the Arabic text follows the Greek in the manuscript, so the female kanon follows the male kanons. Women—like the Arabic language—held a secondary and unequal position in this organization, suggesting worldly subservience to a Greek-speaking patriarchy. Tragically, this secondary status extends to research today, as the male kanons have received scholarly attention whereas the female kanons have not.

Scheide M141, fol. 51v-52r. On the left, an Arabic translation of John 5:24-30, erroneously copied from an earlier section. On the right, the beginning of the female kanon, marked off by a black banner and two marginal notes by later readers in Arabic.

In this light, Scheide M141 marks the end of the early Middle Ages in three significant ways. It helps illustrated how the varied roles of women evident in the early Middle Ages were increasingly constricted as the Middle Ages progressed. It reveals practices of religious accommodation or convivencia that were strained by the rise of Crusader states and ultimately rejected during the Spanish Reconquista. And at a granular level, it allows us to see how individuals who experienced an important transitional moment were themselves being commemorated in death.

Manuscript Citation

Scheide M 141. Princeton University Library. [catalog link]

Catalog Reference

Sofia Kotzabassi and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, Greek Manuscripts at Princeton: A Descriptive Catalog (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp. 217–19, fig. 239.

Karl W. Hiersemann, Orientalische Manuskripte: arabische, syrische, griechische, armenische, persische Handschriften des 7.–18. Jahrhunderts. Meist theologischen, vorzüglich kirchen- und literaturgeschichtlichen Inhalts von hoher Bedeutung, z. gr. Tl. inedita und unica (Leipzig: Karl W. Hiersemann, 1922) [= “Hiersemann 500”], no 46, p. 21.

Further Reading

Christopher MacEvitt, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rough Tolerance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

Jonathan Ray, “Beyond Tolerance and Persecution: Reassessing Our Approach to Medieval Convivencia,” Jewish Social Studies, new series 11, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 1–18.

Alice-Mary Talbot, ed., Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation, Byzantine Saints’ Lives in Translation 1 (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996).

Jack Tannous, The Making of the Middle East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).