How were so many authors so very productive? Exploring Authorial Strategies in the 10th-12th century Middle East

By Sarah Bowen Savant
Submitted to Session P4945 (A New Corpus for the Islamicate World and Methods for Its Exploration, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Arabic tradition is populated by extremely prolific authors who wrote dozens or even hundreds of works filling many volumes. The historian and exegete al-Tabari (d. 923), for example, wrote a history totaling nearly 1.5 million words and a Qur’an commentary totaling about 2.8 million. These were only two of his many works. Whatever assumptions one makes about rates of work, it is hard to understand how a man could be so prolific – and he was less productive than some authors of later times. How were so many authors so productive: what strategies did they employ in their works? With text reuse detection methods, we now can see at scale how authors reused past works, often extensively, and also reused their own. In particular, it is possible to now reconsider the picture of a solitary author producing works and to entertain other possibilities, including for example, something like workshops producing works under the guidance and name of an author. In this paper, I begin with a discussion of the size of the tradition and its growth over time, including the increase from the eleventh century onwards of both the number of highly prolific authors and very large works. I then turn to data showing the largest 1,000 instances of text reuse in our corpus. From this list, I discuss three authors and their works: al-Tabari, Ibn 'Asakir (d. 1176), and Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200).