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A Question of Terminology: Codicology and Palaeography

By Susan Whitfield 23 August 2013
Close up on a scroll, Chinese writing, ink on paper.
Detail from Or.8210/S.1285

Following a recent paper at an international workshop at Ryukoku University, Kyoto, on ‘Codicology and Palaeography: IDP initiatives and collaborations’, Professor Toyoshima Masayuki (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) questioned the appropriateness of the term ‘codicology’ when applied to non-codex material such as Dunhuang manuscript scrolls or Tibetan pothi: the term comes from Latin cōdex, genitive cōdicis, ‘notebook’. There is also the issue of whether codicology incorporates palaeography, strictly the study of writing (from Greek παλαιός palaiós, ‘old’ and γράφειν graphein, ‘to write’). Also, whether it includes the study of printed books.

This is a subject long debated among IDP colleagues. IDP decided, in the absence of anything better, to use the term in its widest sense: to include the study of the whole object, whether manuscript or woodblock printed, including its writing. This is not unprecedented. ‘Codicology’ was first applied to the study of the materiality and script of Dunhuang and Turfan manuscripts by the eminent Japanese scholar, Professor Fujieda Akira. His colleagues and students continue this tradition.

Professor Toyoshima also raised an interesting question about the scope of ‘palaeography’ — whether, for example, it covers the study of the script of the seals used on the Dunhuang and other manuscripts. If not, then what term could be used for this study?

These are not questions with any definitive answers. Scholars of European manuscript studies use the terms codicology and palaeography with varying scope. It is therefore important to define the scope in any publication. IDP plans a small paper on this subject, relating to its own use of both terms.

Professor Toyoshima suggested that it might be better to coin a new term. Suggestions and comments are welcome.

See also this useful blog on the subject.


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