Material cultures of writing in the Indian Ocean world: on the reception of a palm leaf letter at the Mamluk court

Arts 201
Wednesday 15 January 2020 (14:15-16:00)

Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Seminar series 2019/20 - Writing and Records


This paper centres on writing technologies in the western Indian Ocean before 1500; more particularly it explores the communicative role of writing supports in long distance, transcultural interactions. My paper focuses on late thirteenth century Mamluk Cairo and accounts of the receipt at court of what was ultimately an illegible letter from a Sri Lankan ruler. Contemporary accounts of this event nevertheless make the point that writing materials – in addition to the complex assemblage of things that sealed and wrapped finished letters, as indeed the envoys that carried them – are never simply passive carriers of a primary written meaning. Rather, the material qualities of writing are imbued with meaning and are themselves legible. This paper therefore explores the ways that the materiality of an ultimately illegible letter participated in the diplomatic mission, complementing and sometimes contradicting both the written text of the letter, as well as the oral parsing of the text offered by the envoys who carried it. In the process, this paper also contributes new material to our knowledge of the technologies of containment associated both with palm leaf documents as well as with Mamluk decrees. The Indian Ocean is well-known for having been a dynamic area of cultural interaction and exchange, this paper is a reminder that writing materials and writing cultures more broadly were an integral part of these exchanges, and are deserving of our attention.

We welcome anyone who is at all interested in the research and concerns of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages. Each paper will be followed by a pause for refreshments, then questions. After that anyone who wishes will retire for more relaxed conversation, and then we take the speaker out for an early dinner. If you would like to join the speaker for dinner please let the convenor know (Naomi Standen, by the end of the Monday before the seminar.

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