Introduction to the project

Since the origins of writing, people have collected and abbreviated texts. This activity is certainly undertaken for practical reasons, to save space and effort; but it is also an exercise in judgement and selection – whether the writer is collecting recipes, or laws, or opinions. Such activity has taken place in all periods, but particularly in periods when all texts were written by hand. The advent of printing was marked, in England, by the work of Caxton, whose first dated book, Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers in 1477 (a facsimile available at archive.org) was just such a collection text. But the new technology gradually made it easier to reproduce longer texts, and so less necessary to create collections.  This helped to add importance to the concept of the original text and its superiority; the collection of excerpts came to be seen as an inferior activity, although anthologies – whose name means collections of flowers – still continue to be composed and published.

The focus of the SAWS project is on collections of ideas and opinions – ranging from pithy sayings to short passages from longer philosophical texts - which make up the ancient genre of Wisdom Literature.  Such collections are found in all the cultures of the Middle East and Europe; but they have tended to be treated by scholars as nothing more than quarries for the earlier materials which they excerpted. They are also not easy to publish in book form, since each collection is a composition with its own identity. But they are key components in understanding the societies where they circulated, and the formation and transmission of ideas, both within those societies and between them, since many have been chosen for translation. Thus the collection of sayings published by Caxton, which circulated in several western European languages, was based on the Spanish translation of an Arabic collection, itself drawing on ancient Greek traditions.

The new technology of printing may have gradually reduced the production and publication of collections; but the development of further new technologies invites us to revisit them. In 2009 Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) launched a call for international teams to explore Cultural Dynamics: Inheritance and Identity. A team of researchers in London, Uppsala and Vienna saw the opportunity to explore ways in which the new tools offered by Digital Humanities could be applied to such collections. While the field is enormous, we decided to focus on Greek and Arabic.

The three years of the project have been years of exploration and experimentation. The field of Digital Humanities is very fast moving, and we have constantly been overtaken by new developments. We have been working together, and with colleagues in many other countries, to develop tools which all of us could use, for different approaches to our different materials. The tool building has been the work of the London team: see Methodology. The Swedish team have been working on the publication of a Greek gnomological tradition, using the tools to present the fullest possible account of a very complex manuscript tradition: see Introduction. The Vienna team have been using the same tools to publish a series of Arabic gnomological and philosophical texts, exploring their relationship with one another, with their Greek and Arabic sources, and with derivatives: see their introductions to the gnomological and philosophical collections. The London team have applied the tools to publishing a Greek literary text, which draws on the gnomological tradition for its ideas and its structure (see introduction), together with the chapter headings of three further collections.

At the beginning of the project we expected to find more and simpler links between our text corpora. In practice we have been confronted with the extreme complexity of rich traditions: what we are publishing represents but a very small part of a very extensive body of material. What we hope to have done is publish some important texts, many for the first time, in a format which allows us to analyse and present their complexity and interactions. We have undertaken this in three very different ways, but in all cases using the same tools. We therefore hope that our approach – and our tools – will be valuable to a wide range of colleagues working on these and other types of anthology and collections.