Palaeographic Vocabulary: (In)appropriate

Thanks to Peter Malik for helpfully clarifying what is meant by the judgment that some palaeographic comparisons are “inappropriate.” As illustrations, he cites a couple examples from my work—my claims for graphic similarities between P.Bodmer XX and P.Bodmer II and my claims for graphic similarity between P.Herm. 4 and 5 and P.Bodmer XIV-XV. Those two arguments that I made are a little different from one another, and I think there are two separate issues at stake relative to the label “inappropriate.” With regard to the comparison between P.Bodmer XX and P.Bodmer II, I made a fairly direct claim for graphic similarity between two individual manuscripts (you can see the paper and the images here). I will rephrase Pete’s critical assessment (Pete, please let me know if I get this wrong):

Because P.Bodmer XX and P.Bodmer II have been assigned to two different stylistic classes by some palaeographers, any apparent similarities between the hands are just that—apparent and not meaningful. Thus, such comparisons are deemed “inappropriate.” “Appropriate” comparisons would be limited to those made between manuscripts deemed to be within the same stylistic grouping.

If this is what is meant, then I can see why the term “inappropriate” is used. I disagree with the premise (and I can outline the reasons for that disagreement another time), but I can now see more clearly the reasoning behind the objection, and I’m grateful for that.

My argument with regard to P.Bodmer XIV-XV and P.Herm. 4 and 5 was a little different. As I argued in that article:

The type of writing displayed in P75 is classified by some paleographers as belonging to the “severe style,” a type of writing that seems to have emerged in Egypt in the second century and flourished in the third century. When one compares P75 to datable examples of the “severe style,” some similar qualities are apparent, but the overall appearance of P75 aligns more closely with examples of what some paleographers call the “inclined or sloping ogival majuscule,” which seems to have arisen in the fourth century. Turner’s somewhat looser classification, the “formal mixed” style, encompasses both of these types, and it is probably best not to be too dogmatic about rigidly assigning samples of writing to particular named styles, as such styles are generally modern conventions and not ancient classifications. The important point is that the type of writing that characterizes P75 persisted well beyond the 175–225 CE window usually proposed for P75.

In this case, the comparison between P.Bodmer XIV-XV and P.Herm. 4 and 5 is part of a challenge to the assignment of the writing of P.Bodmer XIV-XV to the “severe style.” Here, I think we run into some problems with the idea that comparisons across the boundaries of stylistic groupings are “inappropriate.” If we dismiss such comparison as “inappropriate” from the outset, it is hard to see how we can have any discussion at all about the proper assignment of a given manuscript to one or another stylistic group. In my estimation, the graphic similarities between P.Bodmer XIV-XV and P.Herm. 4 and 5 are greater than the similarities between P.Bodmer XIV-XV and any other dated or datable manuscript known to me. Thus, I’m happy to describe it as being in the same stylistic grouping as P.Herm. 4 and 5, but as the quotation above indicates, I’m even happier to blur rigid distinctions between these named styles to avoid “inappropriately” reifying them.

I don’t want to belabor these points, because at the end of the day, in the broad spectrum of attitudes toward palaeography, I think Pete and I agree more than we disagree (but he’s right that he is probably more optimistic than me!). And I know that we will sometimes differ on how we evaluate similarities and differences in individual samples of writing, but I think it’s useful to get some clarity on our analytic vocabulary so we don’t talk past each other. So, thanks again for the discussion, Pete.

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One Response to Palaeographic Vocabulary: (In)appropriate

  1. Peter Malik says:

    Excellent post and thanks for the clarification! Yes, I should have stated more explicitly that part of my problem with P.Hermas 4&5 as your suggested parallel lay in my agreement with P75’s assignment as ‘severe style’. Hence, the differences b/w the two parallels are in my view not just scribal variations (no pun intended) but rather are reflective of different, though related, stylistic typologies. And I also second that, in general, we agree more than we disagree. It’s helpful to have the differences laid out with such clarity and pleasant to have done so in the spirit of amicable scholarly exchange. Thanks again, Brent!

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