Thinking about writing and reading didactic literature in India and England

By Elizabeth Thelen

One thread of inquiry regarding the forms of documents in circulation in South Asia and their stability that Lawforms Project team members have been pursuing is to consider manuals and didactic literature. Between December 2018 and July 2019, we surveyed manuals in various languages and held a project meeting on this subject. Some of the texts we examined contained guides to various technical aspects of administration and business, such as tables of weights and measures or organizational charts of various posts. Others, in line with the well-known Forms of Harkaran (edited and published by Francis Balfour in 1781), contain sample documents for various functions, offering models to scribes (munshis).

In my survey of manuals in the Rajasthani language zone, I came across a set of mid-nineteenth-century Persian administrative manuals in manuscript form from the Princely State of Alwar that join instructions of various administrative procedures with model documents, as well as exhortations about the benefits of good administration. Now held in the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Arabic Persian Research Institute, Tonk, stamps inside these manuals show that they were once part of the Alwar Palace Library. However, there’s no mention of an author or even the date they were composed or scribed. So rather than start with a particular person or specific time period to contextualize these texts, I’ve been starting by understanding these texts as part of a specific genre of technical and didactic writing. Therefore, as I’ve begun more intensive research on these texts and what they might show us about early colonial Persianate administration, I’ve been thinking about manuals more generally, including the genealogy of didactic literature and scholarly approaches to this literature.

One strand of inquiry has been to consider the forms of didactic literature in circulation in early modern South Asia across a constellation of subgenres and languages. These include shurut (model documents, often found as part of Islamic jurisprudential texts), insha (epistolary manuals), nasihat, akhlaq and neetishastra (advice literature); dastur al-ʿamal (a rather capacious term, but often related to revenue collection), and prescriptive literature on rule and governance emanating from the highest offices of the state, such as Abul Fazl’s Ain-i Akbari. The Alwar manuals bear many features of these genres, such as sample documents, descriptions of procedures to be followed by specific officials, and broad statements about the forms and merits of good government.

Another line of my investigation is the production of manuals by the East India Company. Company servants wrote and published scores of manuals and guides to the languages and document-forms of the Indian subcontinent. They also commissioned copies of various local manuals and edited and published a number of these texts. From the 1790s the East India Company also published an increasing number of manuals, handbooks and digests of rules and regulations regarding company rule, in English but also in translation in Persian, Bengali, Urdu, etc. It’s entirely plausible that the Alwar Manuals are based in part on some of these texts.

In reading some of the East India Company manuals, I’ve also become curious about the history of manuals and didactic literature in England and how the EIC texts might be shaped by this history. With this in mind, I recently spoke with one of my colleagues at Exeter, Dr. James Fisher, who is an expert on agricultural manuals in early modern England. I was curious to know more about manual writing and reading in England and also what methodological approaches he might suggest. Through the course of our conversation, several threads of enquiry emerged. These include:  

Manuals as a genre: Even as they move into new formats and audiences, manuals build on previous didactic literature, often repackaging older content. James pointed out that agriculture manuals in early modern England were often based on classical Greek and Latin treatises, sometimes via German and French translations. Some of the English manuals followed Latin models so closely that they offered their English readers agricultural advice based on the Italian climate that was hardly suitable to the colder, wetter English weather! Orality is also an important component of the genealogy of manuals. In the English case, agricultural manuals were often the result of a gentleman’s efforts to codify practical knowledge shared orally. In the case of the East India Company manuals I’ve been reading, we discussed how those manuals might have closer ties to the manuals and handbooks produced in other early modern English colonial contexts, such as Barbados, the American colonies, and Ireland, rather than in England itself. James also brought up some points about the scope of manuals, pointing out how manuals assumed the reader already had certain types of knowledge and suggesting that they were particularly well-suited (and widely used) to convey managerial types of knowledge.

Circulation and audience: Who was the readership of manuals? Sometimes manuals set out clear statements of their intended audience. We can also look at patterns of circulation, including how many copies of the text exist and who owned them, though, as James reminded me, owning a text didn’t necessarily mean that someone read it! Materiality also makes a big difference to circulation. The manuals James studies were printed, which means they were relatively cheap compared to manuscripts and more widely dispersed than manuscript copies of manuals. But it also meant they were subject to market pressures and their content was shaped by what would sell. Another question we discussed was how was the information in the manuals disseminated? James brought up that some English manuals have a ‘double readership’ built in, with explicit instructions for the reader to read out certain passages to particular people. As with thinking about manuals as a genre, here we are once again reminded of the close links of manuals to orality.

Text versus practice: Given that manuals are aimed at conveying certain sorts of practical knowledge, how can we understand their impact? While it can be hard, and in some cases impossible, to reconstruct the actual use or impact of a given manual, one can start by reading the texts for their intended purpose. In thinking about the relationship of text to practice in his own work, James has focused on identifying the broad function of manuals and to think about their overall impact on society – such as how the move from transmitting agricultural knowledge through orality and custom to the circulation of 100s of books on agricultural methods among a different social class corresponded to changed social structures – rather than how any one individual responded to the text. In order to understand the reception of texts, he has also looked at book reviews that were published on manuals from the eighteenth century, at library records to see who was borrowing a text, at literary and visual depictions of manuals, and at the notebooks of authors of manuals about other manuals they had read.

As I continue my research on the Alwar manuals, this conversation has given me some new ways of thinking about how manuals function as a genre and their textual tradition, who read them and how, and how to assess their impact – as well as insights into the contextual specificity of manuals in England and India.


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