Not quite the way to do scholarship

One bit of The heresy of orthodoxy book which I commented on yesterday came back to me as I was reading Mutschmann’s engaging 1911 paper on chapter titles.  As quoted here, it said:

modern (supposed) truisms do not “function as good historical arguments, nor can they be substituted for such”.

An illustration of this struck me in Mutschmann.

The ever-growing number of papyrus finds have extremely enlarged our knowledge of the externals of the ancient book.  ut they also necessarily raise new problems, not least by focusing on certain features of our manuscripts that have been hardly noticed or inexplicable. … How did the practice of giving books tables of contents and chapter headings arise and progress? …

Useful things arise from necessity. But when was there such for an “argument”, or for a chapter heading? The literary work of art, whether poetry or prose, is almost on such reading supports. It seems self-evident, that we read from beginning to end. The content grows beyond the natural limit of a volume, so the result is a purely mechanical division into books. But even this natural advantage, equally desirable for the reader as for citation by the critics, was not used by authors in the classical period, as is apparent from the way that book divisions fluctuate in their works. …

But did this development of a division into books entirely satisfy the practical needs?  The unit of a “book” was too large to be comfortable, and although it was a great gain, if a quotation referred to the number of the specific book, still the whole volume had to be browsed to locate it, which was rather time-consuming. …

The desire to break these too-large entities into smaller parts had to prevail eventually in a period which was groaning under the weight of a too extensive literary tradition, where it was necessary to bring order out of chaos.  Such periods have a natural tendency to encyclopedism.  Large collections can be digested into handy compendia, containing an extract of all knowledge in a condensed form.  The result is a form of literature which is less read than consulted and looked up.  The result is a form of literature which is less read than consulted, and looked up. There the first requirement is convenience and comfort; literary aspirations have to defer to it.  In this period must arise the introduction of chapters, of the subdivision of larger volumes. The history of the chapter (caput, kephalaion) is still to be written (2) and I do not intend to give it here: it would be a whole book.  In any case, chapters and chapter titles are inextricably linked. The latter alone will be discussed here; and we remain with the same genre of literature, the historians.

Diodorus also wanted to be an author, and he sought to give his compilation a literary character and the appearance of uniformity. He applied the same technique as Polybius and facilitate an overview of the work in his prooemia by brief overviews and back references, a process which I would describe as “literary argument.” All this was an integral part of his work. But purely external tools are more convenient, and were used by Diodorus eagerly in the sage knowledge of the nature of his history as a reference, not a reading work. And so the system of arguments and kephalaia is already present in his work in full bloom. Strabo has spurned this approach in his geography, because the “arguments” for it are easily recognizable as products of the renaissance: this may be indicative of the character of the writer.

The reader will note the lack of footnotes in all this. 

The argument seems persuasive.  A compendium must surely indicate what each extract is.  We certainly know that authors like Martial placed titles over individual poems, compiled into volumes — the Xenia or ‘Gifts”, books 13-14 of the epigrams, sent with presents, contain them and alone explain what each little poem was sent with and therefore is about.

And yet… yet… do we actually know that this theory is true?  That chapter divisions and chapter titles really did arise from the creation of compendia?  If so, where is the ancient testimony that says so?  Where the data that demands it?  It is a truism that such are convenient… but…

modern (supposed) truisms do not “function as good historical arguments, nor can they be substituted for such”.

We must demur at Mutschmann’s confident statements.  Yes, it is possible that this is how things happened.  I do like the picture he paints!  But we must remember, always, that the ancient world was not like ours.  It is self-evident that punctuation must help the reader, yet we well know that this was used sporadically and indeed abandoned by the Romans during the second-third centuries under Greek influence.  It is self-evident, at least to us, that placing a space between words would help; yet ancient books like the majestic 4th century codices of Virgil prefer the pleasant appearance of continuous text.

Data first.  Theory afterwards.  And never confuse the two.  It’s the only way to do scholarship, and, if an amateur may be permitted to say so, failure to differentiate between data and deduction is at the root of nearly all bad scholarship.


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