History of the Text


Dominican University LIS 711

Spring Semester 2018

Instructor: Foy Scalf

Course Description:

History of the Text: Early Books and Manuscripts Up to the Age of the Printing Press offers a unique perspective within the larger paradigm of approaches to the written word known as the “History of the Book.” While many such courses look only briefly at pre-printed textual material, this course will provide an overview on the use of texts from antiquity up to the age of the printing press. Site visits to local repositories will provide hands-on experience with papyri, clay tablets, parchment, vellum, and rare books. Readings and discussions will explore what is meant by the term “text” in order to deeply investigate the methodologies of book history and textual criticism.

This is a hybrid course. We will meet on Wednesday every other week from 6:00-9:00 PM in class or on a site visit. Our onsite classroom dates are as follows: January 17, February 31, February 14, February 28, March 14, March 28, April 11, April 25. It is very important that you attend the onsite classes and site visits as attendance and participation will be part of your grade. Furthermore, the site visits will offer a very unique opportunity for you to view up close rarely seen materials. On alternative weeks, you will have online assignments to complete and turn into the instructor. Grading criteria for all assignments in the course is provided below. There may be intermittent options for earning extra credit.

The course will be organized around three primary themes: methodology, pre-print manuscript culture, and the invention of printing. During the first four weeks, we will look at how texts are studied, thereby setting a foundation for looking at actual examples in the second part of the course. The central component of the course will be spending eight weeks deeply studying the pre-print manuscript culture from across the globe in a roughly chronological order. We will devote significant time to the transmission of texts in the ancient Mediterranean world, an area of particular interest to me that is rarely covered with such depth in a “book history” class. During this time, we will have several site visits to area institutions to see firsthand treasures from their collections, including cuneiform tablets preserving the epic of Gilgamesh, papyrus copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Coptic prayer books, Syriac hagiographies, ancient Greek biblical manuscripts, medieval monastic literature, and much more. In the final weeks of the course, we will turn to the early revolution of print technology.

Required Texts:

There are no required textbooks for the class. All readings will be provided in electronic PDF format via the course Canvas site. However, many of the most pertinent readings have been gathered together in the following anthologies, which may prove useful and interesting to your future careers. As a course about “books,” we will be reading a lot and you will find a plethora of material in the course bibliography, online resources, and announcements.

  • David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery. An Introduction to Book History. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (eds.). The Book History Reader. 2nd New York: Routledge, 2006. (Z4 .B647 2006 On Reserve)
  • Simon Elliot and Jonathan Rose (eds.). A Companion to the History of the Book. West Sussex: Blackwell, 2007. (Z4 .C73 2007 On Reserve)
    • 2011 Edition available through Rebecca Crown Library as an eBook.
  • Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds.). The Book: A Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. (Z4 .B644 2013 On Reserve)


The use of the written word is one of the most important developments in global history and it is significant to remember that writing was invented first in the Middle East and Africa, and later, but also independently, in China and Mesoamerica. Understanding this medium will require an immersion not only in printed culture, but in global history. In this course, we will focus on the developments in the larger Mediterranean world from the earliest “historic” periods (ca. 3200 BCE) to roughly the establishment of the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300) during which we will shift our attention to Europe during the medieval period up to the early 16th century.

We will work with both primary and secondary sources to develop an understanding of what “texts” are and the roles that long-form written material played in various cultures and societies. In order to gain such an understanding, students will study closely the physical media, production, and transmission of manuscripts and books. By the end of the course, students in this class will:

  • Develop a nuanced understanding of the creation, production, and transmission of manuscripts and books
  • Gain a broad knowledge of the methodology used by scholars, academics, and professionals studying book history
  • Acquire hands-on experience examining primary source material in Chicago area repositories
  • Refine analytical skills for reading critically and assessing the value of scholarly argument
  • Participate cordially in group discussion and public presentation, practicing polite disagreement through evaluating readings

If the course is successful, students will also develop a deep appreciation for texts as physical objects, historical documents, as well as intellectual and cultural resources.

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