Would it really be so difficult to determine how chapter divisions are marked in all surviving ancient books?

The question of chapter divisions and headings in ancient literary and technical texts is a long term interest of mine, as anyone who chooses to look may discover by clicking on the tag at the end of this post.  We find, in later medieval texts, that these ancient texts are often divided, not merely into books, but also into chapters, with chapter headings.  It does not seem well known or classified, just how often we find this.  Chapter divisions and titles are a cinderella subject, largely ignored or treating in passing.

In my last post, I looked at what chapter divisions and titles there were in a renaissance manuscript of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.  The NH is an interesting work to investigate, for this subject, since the author states in the preface that book 1 of the work is a list of capituli.  So we do know that these items existed in the autograph, whereas we generally have no such certainty in other works. 

Capituli, or “subject headings”, are perhaps just a list of topics covered, in the order in which they appear in the text.  There is no necessity to suppose that the text was formally divided into “chapters”, in the manner of a modern work –indeed some of the capituli refer to no more than a handful of lines of text, before the next capitulum appears in the margin, so we might better say “sections” — and we can see that in the Pliny ms. it is not. 

So while the English word “chapter” perhaps derives from the Latin capitulum — or does it?  Do we know this, and if so, how? — the term is perhaps one that is rather different.  Perhaps we need a word study of the appearance of the English word, and how it was originally used, and how it came to mean what it means today.  Is it used to translate capitulum in medieval English texts?  There is clearly a research project here.

Likewise we ought to locate all uses of the term capituli in ancient literature — and likewise the Greek kephalaia — and from this determine its meaning or meanings, and any change that they underwent during the ancient and medieval period.  This might begin with an electronic search, and it really should not take more than a couple of weeks to do.

But finally … we need to look at ancient books themselves, and see just what is in the margins, or gathered at the start of books, or whatever.  Do we have chapter titles marked?  Are they  numbered?  Are there collections of them at the start of the book, in a multi-book history?  Or is it a case that the early mss just have a list of topics at the start of each book, and that these are mirrored in the body of the work, gradually, by subsequent readers and copyists?  Which works have these elements?

It sounds like a large task.  But is it?  A commenter on my last post pointed out that, in some ways, it is a superficial task.  All we have to do is look through the manuscript at a high level.  And that may not be so hard to do.

For the number of actual ancient books is not that great.  The Codices Latini Antiquiores of E. A. Lowe lists all the fragments of ancient Latin books.  The number of codices which are more or else intact is probably not that great.  I don’t know about Greek mss from antiquity, but surely there is a list somewhere?

Nor does it necessarily involve a lot of travel.  The IRHT in France has a huge collection of microfilms of manuscripts.  Admittedly this is not nearly as good as colour images — and whether a link is in red ink or black might well be important here — but a couple of weeks work at a microfilm reader in Orleans might well answer many of these questions, and provide a base of data from which some solid conclusions might be drawn.  It sounds like a solid piece of work for a PhD thesis, for a student who is prepared to work hard.

I feel tempted myself; but of course I am not an academic, and I don’t have the time.  Sadly, I fear, I don’t have the energy any more either!  But the whole question of chapter divisions, titles, etc, is one that simply needs a pioneer to go into it.  It’s not that hard to do; just that no-one has really attacked it. 

I’ve always thought of the task of working out the history of the chapter titles for endless different literary and technical works was one that would require an army of scholars.  Indeed a great manuscript scholar once wrote to me that it would require scholarly collaboration.

But why not simply examine what is in all the surviving ancient codices, up to the 8th century, and publish details of what is to be found therein?

How long would that really take?


4 thoughts on “Would it really be so difficult to determine how chapter divisions are marked in all surviving ancient books?

  1. Chapter,or a form thereof (chaepitr or some such, have closed the book now) is recorded about 1200 in a translation (it seems) of the Rule of St Benedict, and is used also in the Ancrene Rewl. It would seem to make sense for it to be connected to capitulum, since this is the Latin name for a chapter house as well as for a chapter of text.

  2. I had forgotten the idea of “chapter house” and “chapter” of a cathedral! This also would need investigation.

    Thank you for the extra info. Do you have a source for these statements? Not that I doubt you, but we’re outside my period and I am not sure where to look; and it always pays to verify such statements! 🙂

  3. Er, just the obvious, namely the OED. I’m not a historian of any kind! The Polish for chapter in the ecclesiastical sense is kapituła (with the common use of ł for l in adopted words).

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