The Birth of Persian Language: Text and Context

  January 03, 2024   Read time 4 min
The Birth of Persian Language: Text and Context
Classical Persian literature had long remained exclusively a manuscript tradition. The printing of Persian texts was virtually unknown in Persia and the Indian subcontinent until the beginning of the 19th century. Also in Europe, almost no Persian literary work had appeared in print after Sa’di’s Golestân was published by Georgius Gentius.

During the 19th century, philological research on a scientific basis made significant advances, particularly in Western scholarship. First to be mentioned are the inventories of the important collections of Persian manuscripts in several European libraries, but also a number of classical works, such as Ferdowsi’s Shahname, the Divân of Hâfez, and works by Sa’di and Jâmi, were published for the first time in critical editions according to the standards of the time. Still, when around 1900 Hermann Ethé and E.G. Browne published their comprehensive surveys of Persian literature, the great majority of the works they described were accessible only in manuscript or in not very reliable lithographs.8 The amount of progress made in the next half century, in the Persian cultural area as well as in the West, can be measured by the rich bibliography in the History of Iranian Literature (English edition: Dordrecht, 1968), prepared by Jan Rypka and his Czech colleagues.

The documentation available for the present History of Persian Literature has improved even more. Not only the major classics, but also many works of minor writers and poets have appeared in print in more or less critical editions. During the past century Persian scholars have continued to investigate their literary heritage assiduously by publishing texts and writing studies in an increasing number of periodicals and in monographs. This is not to say that all the manifold problems which confront the historian of a more than millenary tradition have now been solved. However, the advances made are sufficient to allow the present attempt at a synthesis, which of course can offer no more than a moment of reflection in a continuing effort of scholarly exploration.

A few more words must be added about our documentation as far as the extra-literary context is concerned. Through the publication of the sevenvolume Cambridge History of Iran (1974–91), the Encyclopædia Iranica (in progress), and a great number of monographs, the broader historical background has been clarified and enriched with many cultural details. The advances made recently in religious studies, especially those on Persian Sufism with its close links to literature, is of paramount importance to this History and will receive full attention in a special volume of the series.

Of a more direct concern is the material for the study of the place of literature in society. A fair number of primary sources for this kind of research are available, but they usually deal with literature from a normative standpoint. For that reason, they tend to stress the invariants rather than the variations in literary practice. A striking example is provided by reports of the extravagant remuneration successful court poets received from their patrons, as evidenced in Nezâmi-Aruzi’s Chahâr maqâle. Textbooks of poetics, such as Shams-e Qeys’s Mo’jam, often disregard the poetic practice of their day, focusing instead on features of older Arabic poetry, for instance in his treatment of the ghazal. Moreover, the most informative sources belong to an earlier period, whereas later writers take many aspects of the subject for granted.

This makes it difficult to put the social environment of literature into a diachronic perspective. Descriptions of the conditions of a career in Persian literature, especially in poetry, necessarily lean heavily on two works belonging to the genre of “mirrors for princes” from the pre-Mongol period. The first is the Qâbus-nâme, a manual of correct behavior for courtiers written by the nobleman KeyKâvus at the court of Ghazne in 1082. It deals in special chapters with the poet and his counterpart, the minstrel. The second work is the Chahâr maqâle (Four Essays) by Nezâmi-Aruzi, written about 1156 for the Ghurids, who as Persian kings were still upstarts at the time. Under the heading “Poetry and the craft of the poet” (she’r va shâ’eri) the craft of the court poet is discussed as one of the four professions essential to a medieval Persian ruler, the others being the functions of a secretary, a physician, and an astrologer.

The author not only deals with his subject theoretically, but also from a practical standpoint through anecdotes which illustrate a number of exemplary situations as they occurred in the careers of famous poets. The invaluable information provided by these two authors can be supplemented from various other sources which, though not as explicit as the works of Key-Kâvus and Nezâmi, contain useful data. Among them are historical works, for instance Beyhaqi’s Târikh-e Mas’udi (d. 1077), treatises on poetics such as the afore-mentioned Mo’jam of Shams-e Qeys (who wrote ca. 1226), and anthologies, for instance Owfi’s Lobâb al-albâb (completed in 1220). Later anthologies, the so-called tadhkeres, provide much material of a biographical nature, even if they are not always historically reliable. The works of the poets are also of interest in as far as they refer to their professional concerns, especially their dealings with patrons. In all these works numerous reflections on the nature of poetry can be found. Undoubtedly, a full history of the literary profession in the Persian tradition could be attempted only on the basis of a collection of numerous small nuggets of information scattered throughout various sources. This is a task that has to be shouldered by future researchers.

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