Codicology and the Ben-Hur Phenomenon

September’s guest blog post comes from Dr Emily Chow-Kambitsch, and ties in with the recent cinema release of the new ‘Ben-Hur’ film. Dr. Chow-Kambitsch is a recent graduate of University College London. Her research focuses on representations of antiquity in historical fiction and their reception in popular culture.

This month has seen the return of Ben-Hur to mainstream media, with the first major motion picture adaptation hitting cinemas since the release of William Wyler’s masterful 1959 production starring Charlton Heston. While reviews and box office numbers have indicated clearly that MGM and Paramount’s 2016 Ben-Hur will not come close to reaching the high level of popular esteem paid to Wyler’s film,[1] the re-emergence of Ben-Hur offers the opportunity to reflect upon its origins as a literary text.

And what does any of this have to do with the study of manuscripts?

In 2011, when I came to Oxford to study classical philology at Master’s level, I completed a course module in Latin palaeography and textual criticism. I recall experiencing bemusement when I realized the naivety of my prior conception that a given text in the OCT (Oxford Classical Texts) was more or less ‘original’, with a couple of emendations here and there. This module helped me appreciate the relationship between the permeability and materiality of an ancient text, whose transmission through regions, scripts, and individual hands we can find in manuscripts from a millennium ago.

Five years later I have crossed sub-disciplinary bounds and become a full-blown classical reception studies scholar. With this change, I have come to believe that within a text’s fragility and susceptibility to corruption lies its strength and self-preservation. While editors seek to carry us closer to a text’s ‘archetype’, they find themselves confronted with the changes made to the text by generations of scribes and editors. These changes reflect attempts to preserve the integrity of the text, but also, and perhaps unconsciously, to bring the text into the present, to maintain its relevance for current and subsequent generations. By that logic, textual traditions with a considerable number of inconsistencies, such as the poems of Catullus, bear the battle scars of having been fought over, fought for, and deeply beloved.

This theory of strength in evolution influenced the methodological orientation of my PhD research, which explored the reception of Rome in American popular culture through the medium of historical fiction. The truly fascinating aspect of Ben-Hur as my primary case study was the staying power of Lew Wallace’s original novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), amidst its adaptation into melodrama in 1899, and into feature film for the first time in 1925.

Significant enthusiasm for the novel expressed by Christian readers led to the publisher’s release of Seekers After the Light (1887), a small book with illustrated excerpts from the opening of the novel, with the Magi following the star to visit the Christ child. From 1899 onward, there was an explosion of secular interest in the story resulting from the circulation of the melodrama, which featured a live chariot race with horses running on treadmills. In 1903, The Chariot Race from Ben-Hur was published as a means of encouraging audiences’ sustained connection with the spectacle of the play through reading its origin in Wallace’s novel. 1908 saw the publication of Ben-Hur: The Player’s Edition, an unabridged edition of the novel with pages of photographs of the actors from the melodrama in the costume of their characters.

To a large extent we can attribute these evolutions of Wallace’s text to his and his publisher’s desire to make a continued profit from the novel amidst its adaptations’ appeal among various groups. Yet, more interestingly, we can observe the evolution in the text’s uses that occurred in the hands of the novel’s original readers, who read Ben-Hur in church, in the family parlour, in the schoolhouse.

It was this part of my research on the Ben-Hur phenomenon that allowed me to apply my previously acquired codicological skills to a new and unlikely context.

View across the street from the Lilly Library, University of Indiana, Bloomington. Photo: Emily Chow-Kambitsch.

Lew Wallace’s manuscript of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) is preserved in the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. Through an Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship, the library generously supported my consultation of Wallace’s manuscript and the many letters sent to Wallace from readers in the United States and abroad. For photographs of the manuscript and an 1881 letter from President Garfield in praise of Ben-Hur, visit this page (the resolution of the Wallace manuscript is poor, but you can observe the general appearance of it).[2]

The manuscript is Wallace’s final version, written in purple ink, in a small, curling, yet clearly legible hand. The handwriting of Wallace’s readers, however, is much more variable. Most of these letters had not been published or transcribed, and some contain grammatical and spelling mistakes, so this presented a number of difficulties.

These letters, written just over 100 years ago in my native language, were arguably more easily comprehensible than medieval Latin manuscripts. Still, I found the principles of codicology I had gained from my Latin palaeography course of significant help when it came to generating transcriptions of these documents.

I made a particular effort to adhere to the technique of suspending judgement about a word’s identity until I could identify with reasonable confidence its individual letter forms. In an early Latin palaeography seminar, my instructors encouraged us to transcribe letters exactly as we could read them, mindful of their consistency with other instances of the letter form in the individual hand, and their similarity to letter forms belonging to the script. If we were stuck on a letter, we could then assess possible words to which the letter belonged and through a process of elimination based on grammatical/situational context make a conjecture as to the letter form, and thus the word.

This was hugely beneficial for me, for it aided my discovery of a potential regional reading community associated with Ben-Hur (1880). A 12 March 1886 letter from one Elizabeth Little, a teacher at the School for the Blind in Janesville, Wisconsin, had described her students’ emotional engagement with her reading of protagonist Judah Ben-Hur’s witnessing of the Crucifixion.[3] This document was followed in the collection by a letter dated 22 March 1886 and written by a Nicholas Smith, who described his religious conversion as a result of reading the Crucifixion scene as ‘a struggle deeper and more intense than you can possibly imagine’.[4]

Smith was writing from a location in Wisconsin, but at the time I first encountered the letter I transcribed ‘James[rilee](?)’, as I could not make out the final letter forms due to inconsistencies in the hand. I took a photograph of the letter, and studied it several months later, after which I found out that neither ‘Jamesrilee’ nor ‘Jamesville’ as I later transcribed it were places in Wisconsin.

And finally, based on the context of the letter’s appearance in the collection, the possibility dawned on me that Smith hailed from Janesville, the same town as Elizabeth Little. Lo and behold, I found out that a Nicholas Smith was in 1889 a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Supervision of Charitable, Reformatory, and Penal Institutions, and that the Janesville School for the Blind was under his charge.[5]

This Nicholas Smith may have been the reader who experienced a profound transformation in faith due to his encounter with Ben-Hur. His letter to Wallace, considered alongside that of Elizabeth Little, indicates the existence of a local reading community in Janesville, Wisconsin, or at least a sharing of the educational and Christian devotional/evangelist value of Ben-Hur (1880).

Scores of personal testimonies such as these survive in Wallace archives throughout Indiana,[6] providing an opportunity for researchers to derive a remarkable depth of insight into patterns of audience engagement with Ben-Hur, and antiquity in historical fiction more generally.

The evolution of Ben-Hur as a literary text continues today. Carol Wallace, great-great- granddaughter of Lew Wallace, has in July 2016 published a newly ‘updated’ version of her ancestor’s novel to coincide with the new film’s release, and to engage the sensibilities of twenty-first-century readers.[7] For Carol and Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur’s survival lies in the text’s mutability. Many critics have argued that the 2016 Ben-Hur is a devolution of Wyler’s masterpiece, and even Wallace’s original. Yet it is worth seeing the film to study the ways in which its narrative and thematic elements strive to bring the significant textual tradition from which it derives into present relevance once again.

Emily Chow-Kambitsch, University College, London

[1] Barnes, B. 21 August 2016. ‘“Ben-Hur” Is Latest Flop for Paramount’. New York Times. Accessed 19 September 2016. Gleiberman, O. 17 August 2016.  ‘Film Review: “Ben-Hur”’. Variety. Accessed 19 September 2016. Chang, J. 19 August 2016. ‘Why “Ben-Hur” Doesn’t Give Me That Old-Time Religion’. Los Angeles Times. Accessed 19 September 2016.
[2] Swansburg, J. 26 March 2013. ‘Lew Wallace: A Life in Artifacts’. Accessed 19 September 2016.
[3] Letter to Lew Wallace from Elizabeth Little (12 March 1886). Wallace MSS. II (1865-1884), Lilly Library.
[4] Letter to Lew Wallace from Nicholas Smith (22 March 1886). Wallace MSS. II (1865-1884), Lilly Library.
[5] This is according to The Blue Book of the State of Wisconsin (E.G. Timme, 1889. Milwaukee Litho & Engr. Company: Milwaukee, 399), a reference book for schools, families, and public life, which included information including the state constitution, records of census, population, and state institutions. Accessed 19 September 2016 via University of Wisconsin, Madison Digital Collections,
[6] Including the Papers of Susan and Lew Wallace at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis and the Marian Morrison Local History Collection at the Crawfordsville District Public Library in Wallace’s hometown of Crawfordsville.
[7] 2016. Summary of Carol Wallace’s Ben-Hur. Carol Wallace Books, Accessed 19 September 2016.

2 Replies to “Codicology and the Ben-Hur Phenomenon”

  1. FYI: That’s not a picture of the Lilly Library. It’s a picture of the IU Art Museum. The Lilly Library is across the street!


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