The Mamluk period (1250-1517) is an example in terms of intellectual vivacity. Scholars and books travel easily, ideas are extensively discussed and shared, and the sum of knowledge available is always increasing. When it is no longer possible to master all the knowledge alone, and by heart, how do scholars compose new books?
To answer this question, an eminent scholar of this time, al-Ṣafadī (d. 1363), will be taken as example. Several volumes of his personal reading journal – “tadhkira” – are preserved, but have never been studied. They constitute exceptional evidence of his reading activity and reflect the very first stage of his working method.
Besides, several manuscripts that were part of al-Ṣafadī’s personal library are preserved as well. Tracking them and the marginalia that al-Ṣafadī added next to their text sheds a complementary light on his readings.
The study of such exceptional documents provides us an innovative picture of intellectual life during the Mamluk period, a period similar to ours in terms of overabundance of information. Therefore, the study of this original subject is perfectly timely – it will fill the gap of our knowledge of intellectual history of the Mamluk period and will nourrish our perceptions about our times.
The ultimate objective of of the project is to meet the demand for a synthesis about Mamluk intellectual history, through the lens of al-Ṣafadī’s methodology and working methods. The latter are approached via the innovative study of his tadhkira and of his personal library.
The project is structured around 4 specific objectives:
- to achieve a practical knowledge of 8th/14th century Mamluk sultanate intellectuals’ readings thanks to al-Ṣafadī’s reading journal, that also includes letters sent and received by the scholar, i.e. evidences of his personal and professional network, and of all his penfriends’ literary preferences - most letters deal with literature.
- to investigate al-Ṣafadī’s methodology. What did he retain from the books he read? How did he use the notes he took? Did he cite his sources?
- to gain a precise idea of the contents of al-Ṣafadī’s personal library. Which and how many manuscripts were there? What do/did they look like? Were there copies he made for himself? Which proportion?
- to broaden the scope of the study from al-Ṣafadī’s methodology to the intellectual atmosphere of his time. When it is no longer possible to master all the knowledge alone and by heart, how do scholars compose new books? Did Mamluk scholars use special devices to remember what they read/listen to? Was the knowledge still transmitted during aloud-reading sessions or did books play the first role? Which were the steps to the production of a new book, from the reading/hearing stage to the publication? What were the compilation techniques in use during the Mamluk period?
MS BnF Arabe 3929, fol. 2b, “Abū Zayd at Basra Library” - Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF
Answering all these questions will provide us, for the first time, a complete image of a major Mamluk scholar’s and of his peers’ intellectual life.