How to lose the first letter of a word in transmission

In my last post I looked at how to decide what the genuine reading was of a single word in John the Deacon’s Latin text.  Among the variants was “Nacta” and “Acta”.

Purely by chance this evening I have come across a perfect illustration of how Nacta became Acta.  It is to be found in Ms. Vatican Barb. lat. 586, on fol. 3v, where the text appears like this:

Nacta written but the initial never inserted, leaving "acta".
Nacta written but the initial never inserted, leaving “acta”.

There it is.  The word is “Nacta”.  The scribe has left a space for the “N” to be illuminated, for a decorated initial to be inserted.  To help the artist, he’s put a written “N” in the space, and the text reads “acta”.

In this case the N is big, and bold, and clear.  But what if it wasn’t?  What if it was small, tiny, faint?

Clearly this has happened, sometime in the past, in some other manuscript.  The copyist did not notice the “N” and wrote “Acta”.  How do we know?  Because “Acta” is one of the variants that I found in some of the manuscripts, listed in my last post.

This, folks, is how you lose letters from the front of a word in transmission.

Update: Stephen Carlson points out that it actually looks as if it was originally an A, which was erased and the N written in.  The first “a” of “acta” is different to the other, and the surface looks erased!  And the other initials have been marked up in red.  So maybe… it means the opposite?!  Acta, corrected to Nacta!  Here’s the other A:

Folio 6v – A


7 thoughts on “How to lose the first letter of a word in transmission

  1. This manuscript looks like it had previously read Acta, but the capital A was erased and the letters ‘N’ and ‘a’ written in. The ‘a’ of Nacta is of a somewhat different shape and color.

  2. Very nice example.

    Apparently the first and last pages of books are the ones that tend to fall off, and the same with both ends of scrolls. And most of the “unattributed” Gospel mss are apparently cases where the front page fell off.

  3. I’m looking at another variant, “explicare” and “explicarem”. Once you see a few “explicare” with a line over the e, indicating… an abbreviated m on the end, you see how that happens too.

  4. An intended capital “A” would also explain why the scribe wrote the next line slightly more indented: to allow for the sloping right-hand side of the letter (unlike an “N”, which has a vertical shaft to its right-hand side)

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