Textual instability in hagiographical texts

I’ve returned to working on a translation of John the deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  I made a draft translation of the whole text, based upon the Falconius edition of 1751, before realising that this edition is not based on the authentic Life.  This was most evident in chapters 12 and 13, where the text of the 1477 Mombritius edition is radically different.  Worse, John the Deacon writes Latin in a slightly odd way.  For instance he loves to hide the subject of a sentence somewhere at the far end.  Even a non-Latinist like myself notices these things.  But these odd features are present in the Mombritius version of chapters 12-13, and not in the Falconius version.  I can find no manuscript of the Falconius version.

So I created word files of the Mombritius text of these two chapters, and began with chapter 13.  Today I returned to chapter 12.

One reason why I preferred the Falconius edition was that it is punctuated in a vaguely modern manner.  By contrast the Mombritius text gives you stuff like this, full of semi-colons.

All you can do is to work out the sense and punctuate it yourself.

But then I had a revelation.  I have a copy of P. Corsi’s edition of a Berlin manuscript of the text, acquired just before I had to shelve everything.  This is, of course, punctuated.  I would probably have used this, had I had access to it when I started this project.  But at the very least I could consult it and create a  punctuated Mombritius text for the remainder of chapter 12.

Doing so was very interesting.  When you start looking for commas, you end up collating the two texts.

As I proceeded down the page, the conviction grew on me that the Berlin text given by Corsi had been modified by somebody in order to make it more readable.  The changes were minor, but they all tended in that direction.  The word order was sometimes simplified, even if the same words were there.  Remember that the weird word order of Mombritius is one of the fingerprints of the authentic text of John the Deacon, but it must always have been a pain to the reader, just as it is to me.

In other places a word or three were added, to clarify.  It didn’t change the meaning, but it did make it easier to understand.  Only one sentence was fairly radically rewritten, but again the sense was the same.

All these changes are intelligible if we remember that hagiographical texts are NOT literary texts.  In a literary text, the precise word used is important.  But a hagiographical text is a written version of a legend, and often a version intended to be read aloud in church services.  The exact words are nothing – what matters is the content.  The text may be in Latin – but only because Latin is the esperanto of the medieval church.

To John the Deacon, writing in Naples around 800 AD, Latin was not such a dead language as it was to the medieval copyists of half a millenium later.  He was no doubt proud of his latinity.  But to those wanting something to read aloud at the daily dinner, it was merely an obstacle.  Nothing in the copying process necessitated producing a copy which was hard to understand.


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