The Lippomano edition of John the Deacon

The Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon was printed in 1751 by Falconius, who refers to the earlier edition of Mombritius in 1477, but also that of Luigi Lippomano, Sanctorum priscorum patrum vitae, vol. 2, Venice (1553).  The Life of St Nicholas begins on folio 238v, here.

I had thought that this was simply a reprint of the Mombritius text.  But while I was revising chapter 1, I came across a statement by Falconius that a certain sentence was not found in the Lippomanus edition.  This was odd, because I could see in my collation that it was indeed present in the Mombritius edition.

This morning, I thought that it would be wise to take a look at the Lippomanus edition.  Here’s the opening:

Opening of Lippomanus edition of the Life of St Nicholas.

This contains the useful statement about the text he is printing:

Habetur in libro antiquo Mediolani impresso, necnon in altero monachorum sancti Nazarii Veronensii iam 300 annis in pergameno scripto.

It is found in an ancient book printed in Milan, as well as in another belonging to the monks of St. Nazarius of Verona written 300 years ago on parchment.

The printed book can only be the Mombritius, an incunable printed 76 years earlier.  But clearly the lure of a manuscript copy was too much for the editor.

The text is given with paragraph breaks, as some of the manuscripts do, and with notes and textual variants in the margin, but also, sadly, with abbreviations in the text.  It then follows on with the piece about Vandal Africa, which is also found in Mombritius, and then several more Nicholas miracle stories.  It ends on f.248 with a remarkable marginal blast at protestant critics:

Quid hic dicis, haeretice, qui blatteras sanctos esse emortuos? Videturne tibi mortuus Nicholas, qui tamen mirabile opus patravit?

What do you say here, heretic, who blathers that the saints are dead? Does it seem to you that Nicholas is dead, who nevertheless accomplished a wonderful work?

I’m not sure that the Lippomano edition is actually useful for anything now – not enough to OCR it, anyway – but it is certainly interesting to see.


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.


Working with pre-critical Latin texts

Which comes first?  The text or the translation?  The question is not as simple as it seems.

There is no finer way to come to grips with a text than by preparing an exact translation of it into another language.  This forces the translator to look at every case ending, every -ae and -um; every verb tense and mood and voice.  It highlights, very rapidly, areas of the text that have some kind of awkwardness about them.

I once knew a Swedish scholar who was tasked with preparing a critical edition of one of the works of Tertullian – I no longer remember which one.  He began by translating an existing edition into English (!), very literally.  This gave him a word-by-word knowledge of the text, which is why he did it.

My own efforts to translate John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas have reminded me of this forcefully.  Some portions of the text are very much harder to translate than others.

In some cases the text itself – the Falconius edition of 1751 – seems suspect.  When this happens, I increasingly find myself consulting the Mombritius edition of 1478, and the Mai edition of 1840.  I have, indeed, come to mistrust the Falconius text.  But along the way, I find that interesting things emerge.

I have found that the Mai edition often simply omits a “difficult” sentence altogether.  The first three chapters of the text are particularly difficult, and I see that Mai simply omits most of it.  Clearly the scribe of whatever manuscript lies behind the Mai edition felt exactly as I did about the text; and didn’t propose to strain his brain with it.  Omitted sentences include all those which simply transcribe a Greek word.  These are a source of difficulty to the Mai scribe.  I do understand, indeed.  At one point John uses the word “heroes” with the meaning “bishops”!  I wonder what a Greek dictionary would show?

For John was translating an awful Greek text, the “Methodius ad Theodorum”, which is beyond my abilities.  I suspect that the two – Methodius and John – need to be edited together.  But my long years of corporate experience make me well aware of “scope creep”, as a risk to any project, and I refuse to be side-tracked.  My translation will be of John, and John only.

It would also be possible to start doing some text critical work on the text.  After all, a small number of manuscripts are already online.  The Bollandist website lists a good many.

I have already OCR’d the texts of Falconius, Mombritius and Mai, and created Word documents of them.  What I might do is to run a text comparison on these, and see what comes out.  It would be purely for fun, of course, but it might be interesting.

If only one could OCR the manuscripts.  But that said, today I found in one sentence of Falconius three OCR errors.  This did delay me rather.

As with everything I do, I believe that whatever I do will be useful to others; and whatever I leave undone, well, the world is no worse off in this than it was before.

But clearly it would be possible for me to continue this, and produce some form of critical text.  It might not be very good, depending on how much time and effort I devoted to it.  But in this case, the translation would be the father of the text.  Yet here again, to produce a proper critical edition of John the Deacon would certainly require knowledge of the Greek.  It would not be a simple task.

I shall not go down this route.  As I usually do, I will include the text that I have translated.  This will be a somewhat modified version of Falconius.  But I won’t go further than that.


Stelten’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin arrives

Today I received a copy of Leo F. Stelten’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin (via  I’ve not really had a chance to look at it yet.

But this evening it had its first test.  John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas describes the city of Patara, the saint’s home town, as once “rutilabat”.  The Oxford Latin Dictionary gives “rutilo, -are” as “to glow with a bright or golden red colour”, especially thinking of German hair!  Nor did Neimeyer or Blaise give anything different.

Stelten passed.  In church Latin, apparently, it means “shine” or “glow”.  This makes perfect sense of John’s, um, glowing description of the city.

Clearly I need to spend more time with this book.