The earliest printed editions of a text are often merely a printed version of some manuscript that the editor had to hand; or are based on a prior edition, plus readings from such a manuscript. In some cases all the manuscripts were destroyed afterwards, and we only have the printed edition. This is the case with Velleius Paterculus, and also with Tertullian’s De ieiunio. So these editions are a “manuscript witness”.
I’ve scanned four such editions of John the Deacon to Microsoft Word, and carried out a machine comparison. There are quite a few differences. But in order to establish a “family tree” of manuscripts, which differences are significant?
At the moment I have two tentative guidelines. They may be wrong, but it’s what I have.
- The scribes do not care all that much whether they put down “at”, “et”, “ac” or “atque” – all of which mean “and” – regardless of which was actually in the text in front of them. So “variants” which mean the same thing are not really useful to us. What we need is a difference in the text which has a real difference in meaning.
- Because the endings of so many words are abbreviated in medieval copies – “ū” for “um”, etc – these variants may not be significant either. Let’s not spend a lot of time over “explicare” vs “explicarem”.
The next real variant is not much further down the text from the last one. At the dead of night, St Nicholas has secretly visited the house of the poor man, tossed a bag of gold through the window, and secretly disappeared. So now, time for a quick comparison with a biblical figure! The text continues:
O novi Jacob stropha!** Ille commentatus est, qualiter Laban, mercedem non amitteret; hic autem, ut coelestibus non privaretur commodis.
O the trick of the new Jacob!** The former devised it, with Laban, to avoid losing his wages; but the latter, to avoid being deprived of heavenly rewards.
The reference is to Genesis 30:32-3, where Laban agrees to pay Jacob for looking after his sheep by allowing him to keep any offspring that are striped; but, trickily, Laban gives him only monochrome sheep. Jacob gets round this by putting branches of various colours in the drinking troughs, which cause the sheep to produce vari-coloured offspring. By his trickery, Jacob gets the wages that he was promised. St Nicholas, by his own strategem, gets the heavenly reward promised to those who do good in secret. It’s not a great comparison, but there’s no doubt that this is what John is attempting to say.
The first three words of the text, however, vary in some interesting ways. I only have 46 manuscripts at the moment, but here are the readings:
- O novam Jacob stropham. — Mombritius (1477), Lippomano (1553)
- O pueri Jacob stropham. (what?!) — Falconius (1751)
- O nova Jacob stropha. — Corsi, based on Berlin theol. lat. qu. 140 (11th c.), BNF lat. 5284 (13th c.), BNF lat. 5308 (12th), BNF lat. 5345 (13th), Vat. lat. 1271 (12th c.), Bruges BP 402.
- O novi iacob stropha. — BNF lat. 2627 (11th c.), BNF lat. 18303 (=early 10th c), Angers BM 802 (11th c.) Balliol 216 (13th c.), BNF lat 196 (12th c.), BNF lat. 1864 (14th c.), BNF lat. 3791 (12th c.), BNF lat. 3809A (15th c.), BNF lat. 5572 (11thc), BNF lat. 5573 (12th c.), Durham B.IV.14 (12th), Fribourg L 5 (13th c.), Milan P113 supp. (10th c.), Munich Clm 3711 (11th), Orleans BM 342 (10th c.), Vatican Arch.Cap.S.Pietro A.5 (11th c.), Vat. lat. 9668 (12th), Vat. reg. lat. 477 (12th), Vat. reg. lat. 496 (11th c.), Vienna ONB 12831 (15th c.)
- O novi iacob tropha — BNF lat. 1765 (13th c.)
- Omitted: clamque discessit is followed directly by Mane itaque, omitting the whole digression. Vat. lat. 5696 (11th c.), Vat. Arch.Cap.S.Pietro A.3 (12th c.)
- Omitted: clamque discessit is followed directly by Hic est magister bone, omitting two sentences, but retaining some of the digression, then Mane itaque. Vienna ONB 416 (12th c.), Klosterneuburg 701 (14th), Linz 473 (13th c.) – The Linz manuscript is a contaminated text, however, containing material from BHL 6118. Munich Clm 12642 (14th).
- . Vat. lat. 5696 (11th c.), Vat. Arch.Cap.S.Pietro A.3 (12th c.)
A couple of oddities:
- BNF lat. 989 (10th c.) is impossible to read, but the last word is stropha.
- Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 9: O novi iacob stropha, but, above the “i” in novi there also appears an “a”.
Now by chance I got some help from a google search. I wasn’t familiar with the word “stropha”, a strategem or trick. Googling the words above produced a passage about this in Jerome’s “Hebrew Questions on Genesis”, (Quaest.Heb Ad Gen.30.32-3):
Itaque Iacob novam stropham commentus est, et contra naturam albi et nigri pecoris, naturali arte pugnavit.
Jacob therefore invented a new trick, and by natural art fought against the nature of the white and black cattle.
There’s an awful lot of the same words in there, isn’t there? Although they’re doing different things. This perhaps explains why we find all those accusatives like stropham in our text. Quite possibly they are the result of the copyist being more familiar with Jerome than with John the Deacon. On seeing the unfamiliar text, the copyist “normalised” it. Jerome has “Jacob” as a nominative, the subject of the verb in his sentence. But it can’t be the same in John the Deacon.
“Iacob” is indeclinable, so we could read the genitive, sometimes as “Iacobi”, “of Jacob”. The sense is that Nicholas is the new Jacob. So “novi” and “Jacobi” would agree. We end up with (in English word order) stropha novi Jacobi, “the strategem of the new Jacob”.
Of course I only have a selection of manuscripts. But all the same, it’s clearly necessary to look at them.
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