If a scribe has two copies of a text in different bookhands, which will he copy?

At the renaissance there was an explosion of copies of manuscripts.  These thick neat manuscripts will be familiar to all who have handled manuscripts at all, and are found everywhere.  Fifteenth century copies are commonplace.

I’ve just been reading Emil Kroymann’s study of the transmission of the text of Tertullian in Italy, and the role played by the central book-collector of the renaissance, Niccolo Niccoli.  Niccoli was one of us.  If he lived today, he’d be a blogger.  He was an awkward chap, who enjoyed poor health, and was difficult to deal with.  He amassed a huge collection of manuscripts, which passed to Lorenzo the Magnificent after his death, and are today in the Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana in Florence.

Kroymann did a journey into Italy at the end of the 19th century, and collated all the Italian manuscripts he could find.  In particular he found a manuscript in Florence, written in a gothic book-hand, and a copy of it in Niccoli’s hand, done in a Roman book-hand, both in the Laurentian.

The result of his collation was to discover that all of the Italian copies were descended from Niccoli’s manuscript.  Not one was copied direct from the manuscript in gothic book-hand, despite the fact that the two copies have always been together.  The scribes found it easier to read a copy in “Roman” font, rather than the gothic hand.

Yet the gothic manuscript was not ancient.  It too was written in the 15th century, by two Franciscans at Pforzheim in southern Germany.  Cardinal Orsini had made a  journey there, and returned carrying a copy of Plautus — THE copy of Plautus, which alone contains a mass of his plays — and this Tertullian manuscript.  Both were “borrowed” by Niccoli, to copy; Orsini was able to extract the Plautus from Niccoli’s hands, but the Tertullian he never got back.

We need to be aware of the “path of least resistance” that scribes will take, when technology changes.  There are various doorways down the years through which an ancient text must pass in order to reach us.   Probably one copy is made, in each case, in the new format; and that becomes the ancestor of all subsequent copies. 

When the roll format was abandoned in the 4th century in favour of the parchment codex book, those texts not copied into the new format doubtless speedily ceased to exist.  The compiler of the Theodosian codex ca. 450 complains even then that works by second-century jurists like Ulpian no longer are accessible.  The flimsier papyrus rolls, no longer considered the most valuable or easiest to use, must quickly have fallen apart.

Likewise when the uncial and capital book-hand of antiquity gave way to the various minuscule book hands in the 9th century, which were both more economic in parchment and easier to write, the older copies must have become inconvenient.  They were still readable, and parchment is forever; but if you had to carry a volume to a neighbouring monastery so they could copy it, would you want a big or a small volume?

We see the same phenomenon here in Italy in the fifteenth century.  The scribes could have used the copy that Niccolo used; but found it easier to copy the copy, typos and all.

Then we all know how the first text to be placed into print tended to become the ancestor of all printed texts up to the 19th century.  Again, this was  a doorway.  Yet the texts that were printed were by no means the best; they were often those which were simply most readily available.

Today we have texts being placed onto the internet.  This too, I suspect, is a doorway.  There will come a time, soon, when offline material is simply ignored.  These texts too will perish.

7 Responses to “If a scribe has two copies of a text in different bookhands, which will he copy?”


  1. Nick Nicholas

    A topic I meant to write about for a long time. The fate of the likely autograph of the text of St Andrew the Fool is a poignant example of this. (Autograph text written in 9th century capitals, to be passed off as referring to 6th century; text so successfully accepted, that the autograph was discarded, but we have a couple of sheets survive, recycled in a book binding.)

    Umberto Eco in the 80s had a melancholy observation about all the acid paper turning to dust, and how much will be lost because so little will be copied. Even more true with digitisation. And digitised texts are sand mandalas; they cannot survive past a continuous power supply, they cannot be dug up in a thousand years or rediscovered in the corner of a monastic library.

    This cull is far worse than the previous culls.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Good points both. I’d not heard of this Andrew the Fool stuff; tell me more! Someone faking up an autograph?

  3. Nick Nicholas

    The life and conduct of our holy father Andrew the Fool for the sake of Christ, ed. and tr; L. Rydén, 2 vols. (Uppsala 1995)

    On the dating of the Life of Andrew the Fool, see
    Cyril Mango, in Rivista di studi bizantini e slavi 2 (1982), John Wortley, in Byzantion 43 (1973), Lennart Rydén, in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 32 (1978)

    (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kis/schools/hums/byzmodgreek/Z304/304Popular.html)

    I think I’ve photocopied it somewhere. Ryden found a couple of sheets of the text as manuscript binding, in 10th century capitals, which is after when everyone had switched to lowercase. The only reason you’d do that, he figures, is if you were trying to pass it off as an earlier manuscript, but didn’t know any palaeography. Ryden had already worked out the text was anachronistic, and could not have been written in the 6th century like it claimed. So the only reason someone would try to pass this off as a 6th century work in appearance, he concluded… is if it was the author himself, who was the one claiming it was a 6th century work in content. Why would a copyist bother — people would know a copyist’s work was a copy.

    It’s not unassailable logic, but it is persuasive. The irony being, the autograph forgery was so successful, it was copied and discarded.

    The vita of Andrew the Fool in question, btw, gave us the Orthodox cult of Our Lady of the Protecting Veil (Hagia Skepe, a vision by Andrew of the Virgin Mary wrapped around Hagia Sophia, who has ended up the Patron of the Greek Army). http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9780631232032_chunk_g97806312320325_ss1-49 The Greek Army’s adoption of the cult is why the feast day has been moved in Greece from October 1 to October 28. October 28 is the anniversary of Greece entering World War II.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Very interesting; thank you. If you have a PDF of the arguments on dating and the evidence for forgery of the manuscript, I’d be most interested to see it! (email me at roger_pearse@yahoo.co.uk)

  5. Steve Ulrich

    Just as a modern day analogy to this posting. I do quite a bit of research using http://www.worldcat.org for various books but in the past I have also done actual travelling to each of the libraries to do the same book searching (when I had my own delivery business), and let me tell you while worldcat.org is valuable, it will never replace the hands on “travel to the library” type of research. The cheapest way is not always the best way. This (the cheap way) is the way of entropy but “sweat equity” is still the best route for reliable research.

  6. David Corwin

    I happened to wander on to your blog and read this subject of how copying lead to errors. It must be said that the digital age is only perhaps fifty years old, and its history of producing archival materials is very spotty. However, this is not necessarily the future. We are more aware of the problem and this awareness is crucial to document survival. Electronic scanning does preserve document integrity up to a point better than any copying techniques of the past. I doubt that when all things are considered including the possibility of the failure of institutions, etc., we would ever consider returning to the good old days even were that to be possible. It would be better to learn from the past and hope for the best. If we did somehow stumble on to a promising CD from the 2nd century containing the entire library of Alexandria, without the appropriate CD player, I think somehow or other we’d find a way to read it.

  7. Roger Pearse

    If we got such a CD, we might read it. But imagine a CD of our time, coming into the hands of an African savage, even today. If it can’t be read, it will be discarded.



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