Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. IIIb note 1. A note on the uniformity of the Golden Plates

Mark Ashurst-McGee asks about the uniformity of the Golden Plates in eyewitness accounts, even though they contain both Mormon’s abridgement and Nephi’s small plates, and this is in fact genuinely weird.

As I’ve mentioned, my mental models are based on medieval and early modern European books, where it becomes quite common to bind disparate printed books or manuscript quires into the same volume, but it’s only possible if the various parts are all roughly the same size. This becomes a lot more likely after 1400 not with print, but with the widespread use of paper, which was printed in standard-size sheets. The distribution of parchment manuscript sizes is pretty continuous, but paper manuscripts are strongly trimodal, generally corresponding to octavo, quarto, and folios. So if you take two quartos, chances are pretty good you can bind them together after trimming the margins, usually without losing much or any text. With parchment, though, there’s not any kind of standardization, so the parts often don’t fit as neatly.[1]

Histogram of parchment and paper manuscript sizes

Histogram of parchment (plain, before 1401) and paper (shaded, before 1461) manuscript sizes

So are golden plates more like paper produced by early industrial processes in Italian paper mills, or more like parchment produced by local craftworkers? I think we have to say parchment. In the two cases of plate production described in the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Mormon both state they’re creating plates for their own use, so we have to imagine this as individual and amateur production, which seems at first glance unlikely to result in a perfect fit.

Gardner takes the uniformity of the plates as described by nineteenth-century eyewitnesses as evidence of a standardized Nephite plate size.[2] A conscious standardization seems unlikely to me, since we don’t find this with parchment manuscripts. And I don’t expect many sets of metallic plates were actually ever created in any case.

Did Mormon just get lucky? Maybe, but that seems like incredible luck. I don’t expect writers would leave wide margins on a surface as valuable and difficult to work in as a golden plate, and I don’t know if it would even be possible to trim a stack of golden plates to fit the dimensions of Mormon’s plates.

Mormon may not have needed quite as much luck as it seems at first, however. If you pick any book off your shelf, the ratio of height to width of one page is very likely to be somewhere around 1.4 to 1. (An 11×8.5” sheet of paper is just under 1.3, for example.) This ratio has been incredibly stable for a long time. In parchment manuscripts, it hovers right around 1.4 for over a thousand years, even without any conscious act of standardization. There are certainly exceptions, and as mentioned the widths and heights are all over the place, but the average ratio of height to width changes very little without anyone ever decreeing a standard.

Ratio of page height to width in parchment manuscripts

Ratio of page height to width in parchment manuscripts

So that means if something similar applies to Nephite plates, Mormon only had to get lucky in one dimension, not two. And if there can be an unconscious standard ratio, perhaps there was also an unconscious standard size, the sense that a normal writing surface should be, say, about as wide as you can extend your thumb and forefinger (which would fit eyewitness descriptions of a width of around 7 inches). A few basic standards, which doesn’t seem impossible based on what we see in medieval Europe, might get you close enough for careful trimming of the margins to take care of the rest—if that’s even possible, of course.

A thousand years is still a long time. In addition to the considerations already mentioned, we can’t verify that Mormon attached Nephi’s original small plates rather than a copy produced centuries later, still proclaiming that I, Nephi, made these plates. (That’s not at all unusual for the kinds of books I usually deal with.) I suspect it’s actually more likely that’s the case, so there would be much less separation between the small plates as an artifact and Mormon’s own time, which may also increase the likelihood of physical similarity.

Another possibility is that when Mormon says “I shall take these plates…and put them with the remainder of my record” (Words of Mormon 1:6), he’s describing an act of textual copying rather than physical combination. That strikes me as a real possibility as well.

[1] For more on this and the source of  the first image, see Jonathan Green. “Reading in the Dark: Lost Books, Literacy, and Fifteenth-Century German Literature,” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 52.2 (2016): 134–54. https://doi.org/10.3138/seminar.52.2.3.

[2] Cf. Gardner, Labor Diligently, 138.

8 comments for “Notes on Book of Mormon Philology. IIIb note 1. A note on the uniformity of the Golden Plates

  1. Mark Ashurst-McGee
    June 16, 2020 at 4:42 pm

    Thank you, Jonathan Green, for this response.
    I am following your series with great interest.

  2. June 16, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    A thousand years is still a long time. In addition to the considerations already mentioned, we can’t verify that Mormon attached Nephi’s original small plates rather than a copy produced centuries later, still proclaiming that I, Nephi, made these plates.

    This is a really important observation, I think. The more consideration I give to philological issues–and I am anything but expert in these interpretive matters–the more I am confronted by the degree of textual ambiguity which taking seriously the book’s history must present, in part because that ambiguity isn’t just particular to Joseph Smith, but to each of the text’s compilers, Mormon and Moroni, as well. The whole argument about “tight” vs. “loose” translation, about the degree to which we need to understand Smith’s relationship to that which believers hold to have been revealed to him, whatever that means–parallel arguments exist for how tightly or loosely Mormon or Moroni approached the records they had, and confronted questions of inclusion, redaction, copying, or exclusion. In the same way that there is no way of knowing how many other compilers might have been called by God somewhere in the Nephite world, there is no way of knowing the provenance of all that they compiled.

  3. Cameron N.
    June 16, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    Nephi was very likely skilled in metallurgy if you read the text closely.

  4. RLD
    June 16, 2020 at 5:42 pm

    The small plates seem to have been “lost” for a long time, filed with the records of King Benjamin until Mormon found them when he started on his history of that period (which suggests some interesting things about both the structure of the Nephite archives and how Mormon did his research). But the large plates became a significant cultural artifact. If Nephi made both of his plates the same size (I’m assuming “large plates” and “small plates” refer to the number of plates/amount of content, not the size of the individual plates) and then Mormon made his plates the same size as the large plates just because that’s the size he was familiar with, that would explain why they fit together.

    That said, that Mormon copied the content into his plates and/or was working from copies is also quite plausible.

    I’m very much enjoying this entire series.

  5. jpv
    June 17, 2020 at 12:57 am

    RLD, good point as Alma seems (somewhat) unaware of the 600 year prophesy of the coming of Christ.

  6. June 17, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    Russell, yes, that’s one of the things I’m getting at. It doesn’t make sense to argue about how exactly the pieces of a tangram are arranged if all you can see is one big square. You can make useful observations about the size and perimeter of the total square, but the parallelogram can be almost anywhere inside it.

    In the next installment, I’ll be talking about where the parallelogram is, figuratively speaking.

  7. Mark Ashurst-McGee
    June 19, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    “Another possibility is that when Mormon says ‘I shall take these plates…and put them with the remainder of my record’, he’s describing an act of textual copying rather than physical combination.”

    Yet another possibility is that when Mormon says ‘I shall take these plates…and put them with the remainder of my record’, he’s describing an act of placing the plates side-by-side or one-on-top-of-the-other or otherwise in close proximity. When the witnesses described the stack of plates they saw maybe they were describing the Mormon-Moroni stack (and perhaps the small plates were one of the other stacks on the table or in the hill as mentioned in some of David Whitmer’s accounts).

    This idea has been floated out there before (somewhere).

    Any comments on this idea?

  8. Andy
    August 5, 2020 at 1:51 pm

    What’s always thrown me off regarding Mormon and the Small Plates is this:

    Words of Mormon verse 3: …and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.

    The way Mormon words this sounds like Nephi’s portion was small and is mentioned almost as an afterthought. Yet Nephi’s words make up 82% of what’s considered the small plates.

    I’m rolling around your idea around in my brain and how that may affect Nephi part in the Small Plates’ proportion.

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