Obscure material

When I look at older editions and translations of the classics, or indeed the fathers, I am sometimes struck by the way in which the authors make use of curious and recondite sources such as scholiasts.  Never have I seen it explained, however, how they come to locate these. 

Looking at 16th and 17th century editions, we quickly find that the indexes in these contain all sorts of references.  How did they do it?

3 thoughts on “Obscure material

  1. I suspect it’s just the amazing power of bibliophilia, coupled with a lot of note-taking and a lot of passing around of notes. But it would be interesting to know more about how bibliophiles got their fixes in ancient times.

    As for medievals, a ton of people were sticking useful things into the Glossa down the years, so it’s sort of an open source project running through time. Similar things probably happened in other areas.

    St. Albert the Great, who did a lot of traveling in his friar life, was apparently in the habit of arriving at a monastery for the night, going to the chapel to thank God, and then going to the library to check out what books they had that he hadn’t read. (Note the absence of eating.) If there were any, he’d start right in reading, copying useful quotes, and taking extensive notes; and he didn’t mind if it took all night.

    If you collected a commonplace book of useful quotes all your life, and so did other scholars, and you traded quotes, there would probably be pretty good coverage.

  2. Another thing — I think I’ve read that, if you were a rich and powerful Roman guy with a big library of scrolls, it was sometimes a part of their conspicuous consumption to allow other people to come to their place to study. You generally would need some kind of introduction or connection to the household, but it could be done.

    And there were a few other public library-ish facilities in the ancient world. I assume that most libraries at the public baths were popular bestsellers, but the tendency of all libraries is to collect weird little books you might never have seen before or since.

  3. Thank you for these interesting thoughts. Of course the idea of a commonplace book was much more common longer ago. Writing notes on your reading is something that probably professionals do, although I don’t.

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