early history of textual chapters

The division of texts into chapters is associated with intensive study of texts’ conceptual content.  The scholarly literature describes scholasticism giving rise in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to chapter divisions in western texts.  Islamic scholarship spurred chapter divisions and other paratextual aids in the Islamic world in the tenth century.  Chapter divisions, however, go back even earlier.  Roger Pearse has recently presented strong evidence that chapter headings and numerical chapter labels existed in Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra Eunomium, written in Nyssa (central Anatolia) in the 380s.  He suggests that Gregory of Nyssa adopted chapter divisions from Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History (finished c. 324).  Eusebius is known to have pioneered a paratextual organization that has come to be called Eusebian Canons.  Eusebius, a formidable scholar, may well have also employed chapter divisions.

Historical practices of textual study and copying have tended to obscure paratextual markers.  Ancient scholars memorized texts as part of their study of them.  For memorized texts, quoting or referencing a particular section of the text doesn’t require an in-line paratextual reference even if paratextual markers existed in the referenced text.  Within scholars’ brains was an alternate, organic textual reference system.  Moreover, texts were prone to re-organization in copying.  As Pearse observes, the manuscript tradition of Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra Eunomium shows that paratextual material was regarded as relatively unimportant.  Because the scope of surviving textual artifacts from antiquity is quite limited, direct evidence of ancient textual organization is also quite limited.

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