Event Debrief: “Manuscript Fragmentation Across Cultures”

This post was authored by Matthew Hayes, Librarian for Japanese Studies and Asian American Studies.

On September 9, 2022, Duke faculty, librarians, archivists, graduate students, and affiliates from the Manuscript Migration Lab gathered in the Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall at Smith Warehouse to discuss how incorporating cultural diversity can broaden humanities research in general and, in particular, the young and interdisciplinary field of “fragmentology.”

The disassembly of manuscripts into fragments is something that happens over time, whether by accident or design. Despite the fact that fragmentation occurs in every textual culture, however, scholars who study medieval manuscripts have tended to ignore the contextual and cultural diversity of fragments. As a result, their primary sources (and objects of discussion) have often been only manuscripts from medieval Europe, to the exclusion of the rest of the world. This symposium was an attempt to broaden our perception of the term “fragmentology” to include these often-ignored cross-cultural realities.

To this end, symposium attendees were asked to consider several guiding questions: Can we apply the term “fragmentology” equally to textual cultures well beyond medieval Europe? How might we define the production, use, and value of manuscript fragments in cultural contexts that may have very different considerations in the production, use, and valuation of texts as objects? And what broad conclusions can we draw from these comparisons with regard to the role of fragmentary manuscripts in Europe and parts of East Asia? Each of the three invited speakers sought to answer these questions from their own regional perspective.

Dr. Christopher Nugent, Professor of Chinese at Williams College, was the first speaker and focused on the example of the literary anthology titled Repository of Rabbit Garden Questions (Tuyuan cefu 兔園冊府). The content of this anthology is delivered in a question-and-answer-style model and annotations added later were meant to prepare individuals for civil service examinations. Yet, among those manuscripts unearthed at Dunhuang, they only contain the first fascicle of this anthology. Dr. Nugent highlighted the tension between, on the one hand, textual contraction by way of fragmentation and, on the other, textual expansion by way of annotation, and enumerated several issues that remained in conversation throughout the afternoon: Why were fragments important to premodern communities that engaged with them? What does the fragmentation of manuscripts tell us about their reception and reuse over time?

Dr. Nugent referring to one of the cave interiors at Dunhuang. Photo by the author.

Dr. Nugent’s discussion concluded with further provocations surrounding heritage and repatriation by focusing on the figure of the French Sinologist Paul Pelliot (pictured below), known for having helped to excavate the “Library Caves” at Dunhuang and for removing large caches of texts that are now housed in museums and libraries around the world. Considering the fact that premodern Dunhuang was a multiethnic region historically occupied by not only Chinese, but also Mongol, Tibetan, and Uyghur peoples, among many other groups, Dr. Nugent asked: To whom do we repatriate these fragments? How do we mediate between modern territorialities and the multiethnic realities of premodern eras?

Paul Pelliot at work in the “Library Caves” at Dunhuang. Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis, paleographer, codicologist, and Professor of Manuscript Studies at Simmons College, was the second speaker and explored some of the common criteria for fragmentation in medieval European contexts, with a focus on the status of collections within the United States. With regard to common criteria, Dr. Davis gave an overview of the practice of fragmentation in the context of loose leaves and ornamental cutting, but also of in situ fragmentary reuse, such as in new bindings and paste-downs. In all of these cases, we can observe sets of social practices that differed markedly from those explored by Dr. Nugent.

Dr. Davis covering some examples of in situ uses of fragments. Photo by the author.

Like Dr. Nugent’s discussion of the exploits of Paul Pelliot, Dr. Davis also focused on an infamous figure in the world of “book-breaking” named Otto Ege. Ege spent several decades of the 20th century disassembling the pages of dozens of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which he reassembled into “portfolios” according to his own loose themes; two of these are held by Duke Libraries (see below) and Dr. Davis referred to both during her talk. As Dr. Davis described, Ege has been a major influence on the current state of fragmented manuscripts in the United States and worldwide; he has produced “portfolios” of unidentifiable provenance under disjointed themes and has misidentified or misdated dozens of the fragments therein. One positive outgrowth of Ege work, however, has been recent initiatives to digitally reassemble the leaves from the Ege “portfolios.”

Cover of Ege’s “Fifteen original Oriental manuscript leaves of six centuries : twelve of the Middle East, two of Russia and one of Tibet : from the collection of and with notes,” Rubenstein Library, Duke University. Photo by the author.
Prayer scroll leaf fragment (Tibet) from Ege’s “Fifteen Original Oriental Manuscripts.” Photo by the author.

The final speaker of the symposium was Dr. Akiko Walley, Maude I. Kerns Associate Professor of Japanese Art at the University of Oregon. Dr. Walley’s talk focused on the production and use of sets of sutra fragments (kyо̄gire 経切) and “mirrors of hands” or calligraphic fragments (tekagami 手鏡) in early modern Japan. Dr. Walley introduced these genres by first exploring the phenomenon of statuary and architectural fragmentation. As she described, whether in the case of the broken-off heads of Buddha statues or broken rooftiles, the fragmented pieces are representative of the larger whole. Art historians can study these fragments as a means of learning about the whole, but even Buddhist devotees will ontologically value the head of the Buddha just the same as they would the entire statue.

Dr. Walley opening her talk with reference to statuary fragments and restoration practices. Photo by the author.

Kyо̄gire and tekagami functioned similarly insofar as they are fragmentary, but were also valued as a representation of the complete source from which they derived; kyо̄gire represent the entire sutra and, ultimately, every word spoken by the Buddha, while tekagami represent the calligrapher’s entire corpus of written work. These fragments were assembled into albums and other ornamental collections and were often displayed as an object of appreciation beginning in the Edo period (1603-1868). In this way, Dr. Walley introduced us to yet another type of social practice surrounding fragments, which differed from the cases of China and Europe.

Dr. Walley presents an image of a burned fragment of the Daihōkō butsu kegonkyō 大方廣佛華嚴經 (Skt: Avataṃsaka sūtra). Photo by the author.

During the Q&A portion of the event, symposium attendees picked up on several threads from the speakers’ talks, especially about the role of technology in the reassembly of fragments, imperatives to repatriate manuscript fragments, instances of talismanic or religious uses of fragments, methodological approaches to Quranic manuscript fragments, and other varieties of social practices surrounding the use of fragments. The event concluded with a group-wide acknowledgment that events like this one, which appears to have been the first of its kind among the young subfield of fragmentology, is only the beginning of a much more comprehensive dialogue surrounding the effectiveness of the term “fragmentology,” what is meant (and not meant) by the term “fragment,” and how cross-cultural considerations can help us to better understand these issues in the context of textual studies, librarianship, and archival and museum practices.

Two opposing leaves from Apidamo dapiposha lun” (“Great Exegesis of Abhidharma,” Rubenstein Library, Duke University). This is another example of Buddhist fragments and does not derive from Ege’s “portfolio.” Photo by the author.

The “Manuscript Fragmentations Across Cultures” symposium was  sponsored by the Manuscript Migration Lab and the Franklin Humanities Institute. For questions about this symposium, please contact its co-organizers, Matthew Hayes (Librarian for Japanese Studies and Asian American Studies) and Clare Woods (Associate Professor of Classical Studies).

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