COMMUNICATION AND MATERIALITY: Written and Unwritten Communication in Pre-Modern Societies

Ed. by Susanne Enderwitz and Rebecca Sauer

De Gruyter (2015) h/b 133pp £52.99 (ISBN 9783110371741)

This collection of lectures from a 2012 conference at the University of Heidelberg deals in particular with communication between ruling elites and their communities from 3000 BC to AD 1500. Taken together, the wide-ranging examples in this book give a series of snapshots of how writing functioned as part of administration, officialdom and kingship in pre-modern societies. There is no chapter that deals with a time or place that is strictly ‘Classical’, since the volume moves from Old Persian directly to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. But readers with a wider interest in ancient and mediaeval societies will find plenty that is relevant to the Classical Mediterranean.

The collection makes two key points: first, that power can be communicated by objects and writing systems as much as by words. In Chapter 6, Christoph Mauntel shows that charters were objects symbolic of such power and wealth that the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt impaled them on skewers and paraded them through the streets. The practice of giving clothes inscribed with the names of rulers in the mediaeval Islamic world is another little-known example interaction of materiality and literacy, described by Rebecca Sauer in Chapter 7.

Secondly, the book shows that the written word and the spoken word are always interacting as two intertwined ways of communicating royal power. For example, in this volume we find reported speech of rival land claims in Linear B tablets (‘The priestess Eritha holds and claims to hold etonijo land for the god, but the council says that she holds a parcel of kekemena ktoina’) and Mesopotamian letters that order the recipient to say something specific to another person (‘Say to Enlil-isa: Give 360 litres of dates to Nur-Adad! It is urgent! Do not go against him!’). Rulers in pre-modern societies needed both writing and speech to maintain their power.

In general, the chapters do not assume any prior knowledge of the societies, writing systems or languages they discuss. Angeliki Karagianni’s chapter in particular is a clear and helpful introduction to the Linear B tablets, and extensive bibliographies will allow an interested reader to dive further into each subject. A couple of chapters, including the brief introduction, make for a more challenging read. Douglas Fear’s chapter on Old Persian writing is the hardest to follow, because of the larger number of unexplained technical terms and untranslated quotes in various languages. This chapter also has more typographical errors than the other chapters in a generally well-edited book.

The volume carries a hefty price tag for a book of just 130 pages, but it is currently available as an open-access publication through the De Gruyter website. Classicists might be particularly interested in downloading Angeliki Karagianni’s chapter on the Linear B tablets and Mycenaean administration.

Katherine McDonald—Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge


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