Passing notes in the library

Whereas a scribe or an owner might annotate a manuscript directly, scholars working with manuscripts in institutions, such as the BnF, don’t usually have that luxury. But even if you could write on the manuscript, it wouldn’t be so useful, since you would need to retrieve it from storage each time you wanted to consult your notes.

But sometimes, you might come across some information that you want to pass on to future readers. If you were part of the institution, like Jean Filliozat, then you could update the institution’s own records. Here, for example, is the catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts at the BnF, with corrections in Filliozat’s hand.


Catalogue sommaire des manuscrits sanscrits

Catalogue sommaire des manuscrits sanscrits by Antoine Cabaton, with corrections by Jean Filliozat. Courtesy of the BnF.


The corrected information would then be preserved and included in future versions of the library’s records, such as the online catalogue. But what if you were just a lowly reader, with no such authority? How might you go about “publishing” your notes on a manuscript?

Chandra Shum Shere d.247, Bodleian Library

One common practice is to write a note on a piece of waste paper and then leave it in the manuscript when you return it. Here is an example from Chandra Shum Shere d.247, a Sanskrit manuscript held at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.


Chandra Shum Shere d.247, Bodleian Library

Chandra Shum Shere d.247, Bodleian Library. Courtesy of the University of Oxford.


This manuscript contains part of the Prakīrṇaprakāśa commentary on the first 8 chapters of the Vākyapadīya, a 5th-century treatise on the philosophy of language. The end of the first chapter has been conveniently marked by a small bookmark, reading jātisamuddeśa, the title of the first chapter.


Chandra Shum Shere d.247, Bodleian Library

Chandra Shum Shere d.247, Bodleian Library. Courtesy of the University of Oxford.


Flipping the bookmark over, we discover the identity of the scribe, Dominik Wujastyk, who has used the back of the library’s reservation slip to write his note.1


1. Thanks Dominik!


Sanscrit 1867, BnF

Closer to home, at the BnF, we find a very similar situation in Sanscrit 1867. This manuscript was simply titled an anonymous Fragment de Poème Ecrit en Devanagari, on the paper sleeve surrounding it. In 2004, Ashok Aklujkar identified the text as the Kumārasaṃbhava of Kālidāsa.


MS Sanscrit 1867, Kumārasaṃbhava

MS Sanscrit 1867. Courtesy of the BnF.


As in the previous example, Aklujkar has used the piece of waste paper that was closest to hand — the laissez-passer de sortie temporaire, a card that allows you to leave and re-enter the library on the same date.2


2. Thanks Ashok!


Sanscrit 1117, BnF

In MS Sanscrit 1117, we find a much more complex situation. This manuscript contains a fragment of Rāmānuja’s Gītābhāṣya commentary on the Bhagavadgītā, which was bound into book form. A large note has been bound into the book at the beginning, pasted onto a flyleaf.


MS Sanscrit 1117, Gītābhāṣya

MS Sanscrit 1117. Courtesy of the BnF.


This note, in three different hands, provides a fascinating glimpse of a conversation between three different scholars over time.3 The first hand identifies the manuscript, noting that, as a fragment, it is not very useful. It ends with an appeal to find the rest of the manuscript — « Il faudrait tâcher de le retrouver ».

The second hand gives a few more details as to what you might expect the rest of the manuscript to look like. Although the Bhagavadgītā is part of the Mahābhārata, this particular manuscript contains the text with the Gītābhāṣya commentary, which means that it must be from a Bhagavadgītā manuscript. The full manuscript should be missing folios 20-31, which are in this fragment.

Finally, on the left, in red ink, we have a note, signed by Léon Feer, reporting back on his search for the full manuscript. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a Bhagavadgītā manuscript at the BnF with the same dimensions as this fragment.


3. Thanks to Jérôme Petit for help deciphering the text!


Notes in the age of the digital dark corpus

Today, scholars are more likely to take notes on their computer or phone rather than on paper. We can also annotate a PDF file of a book or an article, or simply edit a file containing a text in HTML, XML, or plain text format. Every Sanskritist today has their own copy of the dark corpus, an assorted collection of such PDFs and text files, passed on from one scholar to another. But not only does each person have a different collection of files, but each person has a different collection of different copies of each file, with annotations and corrections attached. Unlike in Sanscrit 1117, where the annotation proceeds in a linear fashion, annotations in the dark corpus are decentralized; each time a text is annotated, those annotations are copied only to a subset of other people, who may also add their own annotations, generating a complex, untraceable network of copies without originals. Nor is there, as in the BnF’s catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts, a single authority which holds the canonical version. No one knows how their corpus compares to anyone else’s, yet it is no exaggeration to say that much scholarship today is done on the basis of this tangled, invisible web of knowledge. Certainly, when I first encounter an unidentified manuscript, the first thing I do is search my copy of the dark corpus.

To the future philologists who venture to map the edges of this web: best of luck, and apologies.


Suggested citation

Li, Charles. 2020. “Passing notes in the library.” Texts Surrounding Texts: Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in South-Indian Manuscripts (Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi collections). 24 December.

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Charles Li (December 24, 2020). Passing notes in the library. Texts Surrounding Texts. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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