From my diary – more on the textual criticism of John the Deacon

Last weekend I started reworking some code in QuickLatin, in order to allow me to add syntax notes on the fly, rather than having to break off and make code changes every time.  This went well, but is only partly done.  I had to break off early in the week to attend to other things, which left little time.

So I returned little-by-little to the tedious but mundane task of collating the manuscripts of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  In principle you just go for it.  You “get into the zone” and the lines fly by.  Sadly the days in which I used to dose myself up with masses of diet Coke and work far into the night are gone, so each day I only collate a few lines.  That means that it takes ages.  But by steady plodding I have reached the end of chapter 7.

Screenshot of Word document of collation

By the time that I reached the end of chapter 5, I had 6 obvious locations in the text where there was textual variation that might divide the manuscripts into families.  Unfortunately two of these – starting “hactenus” and “trade” – proved to have no value.

These were sentences or clauses that were missing from one early witness.  I thought that if I could find other manuscripts with the same lacuna, this would show that they were copies.  Sadly these were few.

I was uncomfortable working with just four locations for comparison.  These did produce some division in the manuscripts, but I was finding too many “mixed” families.  Instinct suggested that I was probably not doing this correctly.  So I pressed on, noting possible other locations for comparision, and marking them with a header starting “VARIANT”.  That means that I can navigate quickly to them in the Word document.

Chapter 6 only gave me one more worthwhile location for comparison, but chapter 7 gave me four.  That’s good.  But I will press on.

It’s also obvious that all the early editions are bad.  Mombritius in 1477-8 has a defective text.  Lippomano in 1553 basically copies him, but has fixed a few places.  Falconius in 1751 has made arbitrary changes all over the place, all worthless or worse.  Corsi’s modern edition is not a critical text but is far better than them all, even though as sources he only had one manuscript (in Berlin) and Falconius.

It’s interesting that very few indeed of the variants involve any change of meaning. I notice this because I revise the English translation as I go along.  I made the translation originally from Falconius, before I came across the awful mess that is chapters 12-13, too great to ignore, even for someone uninterested in text critical issues.  Then I revised it against Mombritius.  Now I revise it again against the text that I create as I go along; but the changes are few.

One variant was interesting.  Nicholas “regionis illius pontificalem accepit infulam”, received the pontifical mitre of that country.  In Mombritius this is “insula”, i.e. island.  Falconius has “infula”, but I misread it and wrote “insula” here too.  All the manuscripts have “infulam”, including the Berlin manuscript that Corsi worked from:

But Corsi misread this when preparing his Italian translation (prior to making his edition), and he translates this as “ricevette le insegne pontificali”, received the pontifical insignia.

I certainly never knew that the word “infula” existed.  I googled “pontificalis insula” and I found a match, or so I thought here, where we find  “desiderabat enim pontificalem insulam deponere”, “he desired to lay down the pontifical ‘insula'”.

But I had neglected to look up a line and see “effundens”, with the “f” indistinguishable from “s”.  So is this “insulam” or “infulam”?  Other texts with “pontificalem insulam” do exist.  The meaning is “pontifical insignia”.

Luckily I noticed, while collating.  An “infula” was originally a fillet of cloth, or a ribband, worn in the hair of a priest.  In later ecclesiastical usage it refers – I think – to a part of the mitre, and so is used for the mitre itself.

I could wish that there was a site dedicated to pictures of ecclesiastical apparel, labelled with names!

I’ll press on into chapter 8, and then think about whether to have another go at classifying the manuscripts.



Analysing the manuscripts of the Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon – part 2 – the 12th c. manuscripts

In my last post, I analysed the 9-11th century manuscripts of John the Deacon, and found that they fell neatly into three families.  These I have colour-coded as green, blue and purple.  I’ve only really got three data points, so this is all a bit provisional.  The other three turned out not to vary much.

This evening I have completed the task of applying the same 6 passages to the 12th century manuscripts.  The same three families appear; but we also  get a brown family, with mixed readings.

This is perhaps to be expected.  But this determination is relying on a single data point in each case, which is certainly too few to be conclusive.

I had to download another four manuscripts last night.  One of these proved to have enormous page images, so that the whole download was 3.2Gb in size!  This proved too much for Adobe Acrobat Pro 2020, which combined all the images into a PDF, but then refused to save the PDF as “too large” (?!)

I’ve also found a second manuscript in Beneventan book-hand, where again the “Nacta” looks awfully like “Notata” if you don’t know the unusual shape of Beneventan “a” and “t” (which is well explained in this link).

I’m also finding more examples of abbreviated versions of the text, or a text which really belongs to a different version of the Life of St Nicholas.  These, of course, I have to ignore.

I shall have to ponder what all this tells me!


Analysing the manuscripts of the Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon

I have made a full collation of all the 9-10th century manuscripts of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas, as far as the beginning of chapter 6, where manuscript Q (BNF lat. 17625) breaks off.  I’ve recollated the first chapter, since I did that in a rather perfunctory way.

But how do I work out the relationships of the manuscripts?  I’m doing this blind – I can find no “how to” guide – so I’m just guessing, and trying things out.

This evening I decided to pick three places in chapter 1, where the collation already suggested differences in the manuscripts, and collate the 11th century manuscripts for these places in the text.  I’ve put a “heading 3” in my text, so that I can see the Latin around the area:

Screenshot of my Word text with H3 markers visible

I’m experimenting with a trial of Adobe Acrobat Pro 2020 (permanent license), which allows me to open the PDFs in tabs, unlike my elderly copy of Acrobat Pro 9.  I took the opportunity to add bookmarks and stickys to the PDF of each manuscript, as far as chapter 6, as I went.

After I had collated the 10 manuscripts for the three places in chapter 1, I felt the results were a bit thin.  So decided to collate another three places from chapter 5, where I knew that a line, or a phrase, was omitted.

This I did in a separate Word document.  I had a list of manuscripts; and I indicated the 6 places, comma-separated, against each.  In retrospect a spreadsheet might serve better.  They all started out as black text.

But the results were rather interesting, and here they are:

List of manuscripts and variants

Once I was done, I colour-coded manuscripts that were basically the same.  I have three groups!

Not all of my “places” were significant, at least in the 11th century.  Thus I chose “inclammationem” because I had a bunch of witnesses on both sides:

  • “inclamationem”, “crying out against” – Fal., M, P, Q, O, B, C; “in cachinnationem”, “in immoderate laughter” – Corsi, A, Linz 473 (13th), Munich Clm 12642 (14th); “in vocem” – Mom., Lipp.;

But in actual fact there was no variation on this, at least not in the 11th century.  It looks as if it must originate later.  Likewise the sentence beginning “hactenus” and the clause starting “trade” are unimportant.

But “et laudem / ex laude” and “aede / sede” form a clear group.  Likewise the weird Nacta / Notata / etc lines up with them, and splits the “ex laude” group further.

That’s a useful result.  I have learned a bunch about ten manuscripts from this exercise, which took me less than an hour.

So far so good.  Onward.


From my diary

I have returned to working on the Latin text of the Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon, collating it against a bunch of manuscripts.

Working on the text is a question of repeated passes, as I learn more and work out what I need to do.  Last time I combined the 13 chapters into a single file, but the Latin text and English are still interleaved.  I don’t have a stemma.  But I do have quite a lot of manuscripts in PDF form on my disk.  There are too many to collate the lot.

Last time through I collated the early editions – Mombritius and Falconius, with a certain amount of the modern but non-critical Corsi edition.  I also looked at whatever manuscripts I then had.  So I have notes under the Latin text, and indeed the English, which look like this:

Quid plura**? Ingruente** inedia, tres virgines, quas habebat filias, quarum nuptias etiam ignobiles spernebant viri, fornicari constituit, ut earum saltem infami commercio, infelicem ageret vitam.

** “quid plura (dicam)”, what more should I say? An idiom.
** Mom., Fal.; Corsi: “ingrediente”

What more can I say?  With his hunger** increasing, he decided to prostitute** his three virgin daughters**, whose hands in marriage even humble men spurned, so that by their infamous trade he might at least carry on his unhappy life.

** deponent verb
** Lit. “three virgins, whom he had as daughters”

My Word document is under version control (using Git), so I can safely remove stuff.  The English notes will get deleted.  The Latin needs revision.

But the early editions are hardly a reliable source for the text. What I should be using is the earliest and best manuscripts.  Unfortunately I don’t know what the “best” manuscripts are.  But it was fairly obvious that, if I collated against the earliest few – whichever they were – then I ought to improve the standard of the text.

So I went through my collection of manuscripts and established what the earliest ones are:

9th century

  • Milan P.113sup (last half 9th) = M


  • BNF lat 989 = P
  • BNF lat 17625 = Q
  • Orleans 342 = O


  • Vat. lat.1271 = V
  • Vat. lat.5696
  • Munich CLM 3711 (early 11th) = B

11th 3rd quarter? or “post 950”?

  • BNF lat 18303 = C

Plus a bunch of 11th century manuscripts.  I have this list open in a Word document.  I assigned sigla to the first four manuscripts, which I knew I wanted to collate against my text.  BNF lat. 18303 is a funny one; my information on the date of the text varies wildly.  But it’s clear, little abbreviated, and I just plain like it.  So I’m using it as a second-string source.  Others in the list, as I start to use them, get sigla.

Why am I using the later mss at all?  Because my text derives from the early editions.  If all the early manuscripts disagree, it’s nice to know if there is a manuscript recording the edition reading or not.  I’m not spending much time on that, but a glance at a few later ones can sometimes tell me.

Because I don’t have a stemma, I have no idea how independent the first 4 manuscripts are.  The only way to find out is to try collating them, to learn by doing.  If they are all identical, but different from the early editions, then plainly there is another family of manuscripts around.  It’s a guess, basically; the manuscripts are early, so they ought to have less corruption.  But it’s practical for me to collate 4 manuscripts.  It’s not practical to collate 60.  Even if I know that “recentiores non deteriores”, that “later may not be worse”.  But I won’t know until I’ve done a lot more collating.

It seems that creating a critical edition is just like everything else.  It has to be done iteratively, repeatedly working again and again through the text, learning all the while.  It’s hugely wasteful of time; but there isn’t any other way.  You learn as you do it.  As you search, and research, you find resources and have to go back and use them.

For instance last night I discovered the “History of St Nicholas” in the Golden Legend, in Latin, and in Caxton’s English.  I was googling for a particular phrase, and up it came.  Of course the Golden Legend derives from John the Deacon, so some of the Latin is the same, so the English is a control on my own translation.  Except that Caxton is very loose!  (Is there a modern translation?)  So… that’s another resource.  I ought to go back through my text and translation and check against it.  That would be another pass, once more through the text.

I’m probably not as far along as I think I am.  I feel that I am close to completion; yet there is all this text critical work to be done.

As I collate, I am finding that M, the Milan manuscript – the only one of the Milanese manuscripts that I could get – is indeed somewhat different from P, the earliest Paris manuscript.  But this becomes unreadable through wear by chapter 4.  Q seems to be much the same as P; the Orleans manuscript is mostly the same, but has at least once gone completely off-piste.

I’ve begun chapter 4, and I have found that the Mombritius text is, as I thought last time, more reliable than the Falconius text.  But I am finding the Falconius reading sometimes, and sometimes only in V or  By the time I reach the end of chapter 13, I will have a collation of the lot, and a much better idea of the text and these manuscripts and their character.  No doubt I shall find that I have to go back yet again to apply whatever I learn this time.

Oh well.  Onward.


How did he get *that* reading?? (Again) – Recensio 7

From one of the miracle stories of St Nicholas (BHL 6164), appended to John the Deacon.  The story so far.  St Nicholas has sneaked up on a gang of robbers who have looted a customs-house, which was left under the saint’s protection.

Tunc dixit ad eos Sanctus Nicolaus, “O infelices et miseri, quid agitis? Numquid ignoratis, quoniam ego ipse ibidem eram, quando hoc malum perpetrastis? Nam oculi mei conspexerunt, quando has et illas res abstulistis.” Quantitatem et numerum etiam cunctarum rerum, quae de theloneo abstulerunt, singillatim eis exponens, addidit dicens, …

Then Saint Nicholas said to them, “O unfortunate and wretched ones, what are you doing? Do you not know that I myself was there when you committed this evil? For my eyes saw when you took away these things and those things.” Then he gave the quantity, and also the number of all the things which they had taken from the toll-house, listing one by one to them, saying, , …

He tells them, “All is known!” and they panic and take the stuff back. The Latin text here is what I now think the author wrote.

But I was working from the Falconius edition (1751) here, and when I got to this bit, I was a bit puzzled.  Here it is:

Latin text of the passage in the edition of Falconius.

Which is a bit weird.  How is “quanti autem” the accusative for “exponens”?

Well I happened to have a manuscript open (BNF lat. 989, 10th c.), and I saw this:

Latin text of the passage in manuscript BNF lat. 989.

That made more sense.  “Quantitatem” rather than “Quanti”.  The etiam has moved up, so we end up with “etiam &”, a phrase not  uncommon in John the Deacon.  But the “etiam”‘s do move around in the manuscripts.  It’s probably just a copyist error in this particular manuscript.

Next I looked at the Mombritius, the first edition, published before 1480, and I got this:

Latin text of the passage in the edition of Mombritius.

This confirmed the “quantitatem”, but left the “etiam” alone.  Only “numerum” has now become “munerum”, “the quantity and value also of all the stuff…”.  Nobody else has “munerum”, so this suggests to me that the Mombritius edition was based on a manuscript in Gothic hand, where such slips can be rather easy…

Cartoon showing Gothic book hand and its unreadability

I do love that cartoon!

Next I opened another manuscript, Wien ONB 416 (12th c.), which belongs to a separate family from the other manuscripts:

Latin text of the passage in the manuscript Wien ONB 416.

Here again we have “Quantitatem & numerum etiam”, rather abbreviated.

Then I looked at the Lippoman edition (1515), and all became clear.

Latin text of the passage in the edition of Lippomanus.

Here is our “Quanti”, as Falconius gives it!  And here also is his “autem”, or rather “tatem”!!  The silly fool was copying Lippomanus, clearly in a great hurry, and didn’t notice the hyphen.  So he gave two words, “Quanti autem”, where the nice clear printed copy before him read “Quantitatem”.

It’s hard to believe that Falconius did this, so I would tend to think that his compositor/typesetter did it.  Which means that when Falconius sent his edition to the press, he sent a marked-up copy of Lippomanus to the press, rather than writing out his own copy first.

We get an awful lot of information here about these early editions.

  • The editio princeps, Mombritius, ca. 1480, was printed from a manuscript in Gothic hand, and misread.
  • The second edition, of Lippomanus, ca. 1515, may have used Mombritius but certainly did not copy it.  Instead it gives the manuscript reading.
  • The third edition, of Falconius, 1751, was done carelessly and quite possibly by writing changes into a copy of the Lippomanus edition.  There was no change at this point, but the typesetter misread the exemplar before him and got it wrong.

That’s rather nice, really.  I’ve learned a lot from a little.  Once again, I’ve learned not to rely on Falconius.


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


Inventa ergo… Or maybe not – Recensio, part 2.

Time to plunge into the text and see if I can find any errors in the manuscripts that might help me divide them up into families.

When I was collating the text of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas, I came across a passage, which is interesting for the sheer number of textual variants, for the first word of the sentence.  St Nicholas has learned that a starving man, unable to afford a dowry for his three daughters, has decided to prostitute them.  He decides to do something about this.

Inventa ergo** cuiusdam noctis hora, sumens non modicum aurum, ligansque in panno, perrexit ad domum viri, quam undique circumspiciens, per fenestram quae competens videbatur, clam intro projecit, clamque discessit.

Therefore, when the hour of a certain night arrived,** he took not a little gold, and tying it in a cloth, he went to the man’s house, which he surveyed from all sides, and then, through a window which seemed appropriate to him, he secretly threw it inside and secretly departed.

I noticed this place when I was machine-comparing the editions.

  • Mombritius, Lippomano: inventa ergo … hora – the hour having been found/reached, therefore.
  • Falconius: nactus ergo … hora – (he) having reached, therefore … the hour.
  • Corsi: acta ergo … hora – the hour having come, therefore.
  • Mai: infamiis notata igitur – their disgrace having been noticed, therefore.

That’s a lot of differences, and that’s what, from a text criticism point of view, we need to find!  So… good news!  Now here are some thoughts, based on what I generally know about these editions.

  • Mombritius printed some unknown (probably late) manuscript.  Lippomano may have just reprinted Mombritius at this point.
  • Corsi used Falconius, but also a Berlin manuscript.  At this point in the manuscripts, there is an initial.  Is acta really Nacta, copied from a manuscript where the initial “N” had never been painted in?  So we could ignore it?
  • Mai’s edition is a printed version of an abbreviated form of the text, which turns into a paraphrase.  Maybe the scribe of the abbreviation found something odd here – maybe just something he read as atta? and improvised?

Maybe we have manuscripts missing the initial letter.  Let’s go and look, and see what we have.  Maybe we have a point at which the manuscript tradition diverges?  (This will also help me get more of the manuscript material in order on my disk.)

The first PDF, alphabetically, in my folder of manuscripts is Balliol 216.  This I made from a zip file of images, downloaded from the website, and pulled into a PDF using Finereader 15.  I’m opening it for the first time (in a very old copy of Acrobat 9 Pro).  I wince a bit as I see images on their sides and upside down.  I read the folio numbers as I page down, and get Nicholas at folio 33r as expected.  I bookmark it, and save the PDF properties so that the bookmarks will open whenever I open the PDF.

The text isn’t that great to read – a Gothic hand, drat it – but I know what I’m looking for.  It’s an initial.

Ooo.  On folio 34 there’s an erasure.  I note that in the bookmarks.

I page down.  Some of the photos are lying on their sides.  I rotate them.  I look out for familiar initials and bookmark them.  Acrobat is amazing.  Pity you can’t actually buy a copy any more.

I page down, looking for the end of the text.  I must have passed it, because I have a red initial “Igitur postquem beatissimi nicholaus ex hoc mundo migravit” – “After blessed Nicholas snuffed it”; but I know this isn’t part of my text, but some of the tedious miracle stories often added on the bottom.  So fol. 42r is past the end.  Bookmark that.

Back up.  Aha!  Bottom of f41v is what I’m looking for – “remearunt ad propria” – “they went home”, plus some standard stuff “magnificentes doninum jesum christum”.  That’s the end.  Bookmark it.

So I’m not going to find a handy initial.  Rats.  Hmm… I can make out “Tunc om” and then an abbreviation.  I got to my working file: it’s tunc omnes, and I’m in the middle of chapter 7.  Too far.  Mark it up anyway.  His ita transactis, the start of chapter 7, can’t be far – oh yes, there it is.  Sticky note, and bookmark.  Back up I go… ah, there’s Laban!  Good old Laban, I’m not far now.  And … there it is!

Balliol MS 216 - position of our passage
Inventa ergo? Not in Balliol 216! It’s Notata igitur.

Immediately we find… “Notata igitur!”  (Words before it are patrem tuum qui in caelis est, your father who is in heaven.  Unlike me.)  Different again from any of the manuscripts, although clearly the Mai abbreviated text is working from something of this type.

I won’t drag you through this process for each manuscript.  But I’m doing the same thing in each case.  What do I get?

  • Balliol 216 (13th) = Notata igitur
  • Berlin theol. lat. qu 140 (11th) = Acta igitur, which is Corsi’s reading from just this manuscript
  • BNF lat 196 (12th) = Acta igitur, with the capital.
  • BNF lat. 989 (10th c) = v faded.  I think it’s a Notata igitur, with the capital, after some image manipulation.  The N and the ata are clear.
  • BNF lat 1765 (13th) = Nacta igitur.  But something is odd about this ms – the text is a lot shorter and ends with “accepit insulam”, part way through chapter 7, then another text, which seems to be called the “Relatio Simplicii” in another ms (below) and then an odd ending from BHL 6108a.  Then the Passio of St Lucy.
  • BNF lat. 1864 (14th) = Notata ergo.  This text ends with the usual remearunt, but then follows with material printed by Falconius as chapters 14 and 15 – the first manuscript copy I have seen of this.
  • BNF lat. 2627 (11th) = Notata ergo.  This too ends with chapters 14 and 15.
  • BNF lat. 3791 (12th) = Nacta ergo.  The front of the ms is missing.  This copy ends with remearunt and then follows the Life of St Lucy.
  • BNF lat. 3809A (15th) = ???  There’s definitely an ergo but what’s the first word, with the initial, following the “a – li – ud. -“?  It looks like “Clam“? “without knowledge of the hour”?  The thing ends with the ch.14, and a bunch of miracles, then the life of St Ambrose.

  • BNF lat. 5308 (12th) – Transacta ergo.
  • BNF lat. 5573 (12th c.) – Nacta ergo, but marginal correction to facta.
  • Fribourg L 5 (13th) – Nacta igitur.  This does not seem to have the usual remearunt, but does have chapters 14, 15 and then ending from BHL 6108a, and then the “Relatio Simplicii” about the transitus of St Nicholas.
  • Milan P113 supp – Nacta ergo.  This ends with “chapters 14 and 15” and then the Life of St Waleric (who?)
  • Munich BSB Clm 12642 (14th) – Nactus ergo, but the Nactus appears to be in a different hand, so an erasure and correction.
  • Vatican Barb. lat. 583, f.44v – blessed if I know!  It’s something in Beneventan, which I can’t read.  I’ve posted to Twitter.

  • Vatican – Nacta ergo.  But with an unilluminated N.  Easy copyist error to write “Acta”.
  • UPDATE: Vat. lat.1271 (12th c.) – Inventa ergo.  Finally!

I’m beginning to wear out here, so I will stop for now. I’ve learned quite a bit. Clearly I need to catalogue exactly how each copy ends.

But notice what is not found in any of these?  The “inventa” that we started with!

Later: By chance I’ve found a perfect example of why the text cannot be “Acta”.  It’s in my next blog post, here.

Later still: Or maybe it was originally Acta, “corrected” to Nacta?

The Munich copy of vol. 2 of Mombritius, “Sanctuarium”, p.163, showing “inventa”


How to Compare Manuscripts – Recensio part 1

The Latin text that I am working on has never had a critical edition.  I am actually not sure what the author wrote at points, because the editions differ so much.  What to do?

These days we have lots of manuscripts online.  But … how do we go about comparing them?  Where do we start?

Googling has not produced anything very useful.  So I thought that I would record my own thoughts, as far as I have got.

The only practical guide that I have seen is in Martin West’s Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique (1973).  On page 66 he tells us:

The manuscript is compared with a printed edition word by word, and the differences written down. Some people write them in the margins of the edition, but even if the copy is interleaved this does not give one room for more than a few manuscripts’ variants, and I usually use a separate notebook. It is essential in this case to record in writing which edition has been used for the collation, for if that is not known a collation loses much of its value. (One must bear in mind the possibility that one’s collations will one day be used by someone else, and one must therefore make sure that it is clear in this and in all other respects how they are to be interpreted.)

It is best to choose an edition which is light to travel with, will always be easily available, and keeps close to the paradosis (to minimize the amount of writing necessary); and to use the same one for each collation.

Every effort should be made to prevent confusion between the collations of different manuscripts. If they are done into the printed copy, the best thing is to use different coloured inks[2]); in a notebook, the manuscript should be identified at the top of every page.

Care must also be taken to avoid ambiguity about the location of the variant. In prose texts the lines should be numbered down each printed page and the numbers used for reference. If the variant is for a word that comes twice in the same line, or might be read as being for either of two similar words, it must be made clear which one is in question.

[2] Collations should always be in ink. If washable ink is used, beware of rain.

He goes on to add that, if you have decided to ignore some trivial points, like iota subscript (in Greek), make a note that you have done so.  Always record corrections and marginal notes.  It’s a good idea to note where the page turns; an omission in another manuscript at precisely that point is evidence of copying.

These are all good, practical points.

Now I’d like to add a couple of my own, as far as I have taken things, which is not very far.  What I write relates to Latin, but no doubt applies more or less equally to Greek.

  1.  In order to compare manuscripts effectively you do need to be familiar with the Latin text.  Otherwise you simply won’t be able to find your place.  I started downloading manuscripts at an early stage, but could do nothing with them.

2.  The best way to get familiar with a Latin text, and its peculiarities, is to prepare a translation of it.  This forces you to grapple with every word, and to work out what the author is saying and how he says it.  I know a Swedish philologist who intended to edit one of the works of Tertullian.  In preparation for the task, he prepared a translation of it, into English (!)  It may seem burdensome, but it is really a huge aid.

In my own case I have a Word file with the text broken down into a sentence or two, with my draft English translation interleaved.  This also gives me a place to write notes and… to start noting manuscript variations.  Here’s a bit from my current opus:

Example of interleaved Latin and English
Excerpt from the working file on the text and translation

Of course a single file can be overwhelming.  I work a chapter at a time, and only combine them once I’ve done three passes on each.

Windows Explorer, showing directories
Windows Explorer, showing directories
Directory showing files in progress
Work in progress!

3.  You need an edition to use as a base text.  It doesn’t matter what it is, or whether it is any good or not.  In fact a late pre-critical text, “vulgate” text, with interpolations, but punctuated, can be ideal for this purpose.  It’s likely to be based on some, dead common manuscript.  In that case, it will save you a lot of typing.  It’s just the rail on which you will hang your notes, and it is far easier to mark it with “this bit not in XYZ”.

4.  Get it into an electronic form, so you can use it as I did above.  I use Abby Finereader Pro 15, which isn’t that expensive and does Latin very nicely.  Once you have it in electronic form, you can do searches on it, when you’re staring at some manuscript and can’t remember “where does it say ‘Armata'”?  You can do comparisons automatically with other editions too, as I remarked in my last post.  You can copy and paste bits of the manuscript images into a Word document if need be.

5.  Get some manuscripts downloaded in PDF form.  The Gallica website Bibliotheque Nationale Français is great for this.  Finding manuscripts can be a pain, but this will certainly get easier as time goes by.  You should have a PDF editor on your machine, which will allow you to extract just the pages that you need.  Then you can mark it up.  I’ve used bookmarks to indicate key points in the text, and sticky notes to indicate, within a page, just where something is.  For instance in the image below, “laetamur” is the start of “chapter 15” of the printed text.

Manuscript with markup

I have a folder full of manuscripts, indicating whether they are microfilm or real, and with the date in the file name (which I recommend):

So far I have been looking at these, and marking up divisions in the text, and indicating where the chapters of the edition are.  This makes it faster to access the pages that you want, and helps you to start getting to grips with the text.

That’s as far as I have got for now.  My working file already indicates places where the editions disagree, so I will start noting the readings of the manuscripts for the same.  I’ll write another post when I’ve done more!


What is a critical edition, and how do I find one?

I have just been asked this basic question, on this post on the manuscripts of Pliny the Elder, and to my surprise a quick google does not give a satisfactory answer.  So … here goes!

Ancient literary texts were dictated or written by their authors more than 15 centuries ago.  They were then hand-copied for many centuries, initially in papyrus rolls, and then into the modern book format, the parchment codex.  During this time most ancient texts were lost, forever.  Only 1% of ancient literature is estimated to survive.

Those that do survive do so in medieval hand-written copies.  These are known as the “manuscripts” of ancient authors.  (For modern authors, we use the word “manuscript” differently, to mean the handwritten copy sent to the publisher by the author, but these almost never survive from antiquity).[1]  These copies are few.  Most ancient texts survive in copies no older than about A. D. 800, many of which descend from a single manuscript that had survived from Antiquity.  The only exceptions are texts that were used a lot during antiquity and after, such as the bible, and the works of the major church fathers.

Other losses of text happened.  Some texts survive in an incomplete form.  Sentences are missing.  Chapters are missing.  Whole books are missing.

For instance, the start of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars is not known to us, although it still existed in the 6th century AD, as a stray quote tells us.  Many ancient histories were written in tens of “books”, each originally a single scroll.  Livy’s Roman History is an example, written in at least 140 books.  The groups of 10 books travelled down the centuries separately.  Of Livy, all that survives is books 1-10 – one unit; books 21-30; books 31-40; and a single damaged manuscript which originally contained books 41-50 but the back is lost, and today it includes only books 41-45 and the first page of book 46.

Also, in the process of copying, scribes made mistakes.  Sometimes they went back and fixed them.  Sometimes a later copyist fixed it.  Sometimes a later copyist guessed wrong! Sometimes there were odd abbreviations.  Also there were changes to the type of handwriting used for books – “book hand” is the jargon phrase – which means that later scribes could get confused.

Printing arrives in 1450.  The first printed editions of ancient texts arrive then.

But these were not “critical editions”.  Instead the publisher found a manuscript – often a late manuscript -, and simply printed whatever text was in it.  He might include some corrections, or not.  If it was a Greek text, he would often supply a translation into Latin.

These “pre-critical editions” were printed, and reprinted, for centuries.  Sometimes a work would be printed; and then a later publisher would find another manuscript, which contained parts of the work that the first edition did not contain.  But often it was just a case of different punctuation, typeface, and notes.  (The text that “everybody” knew is sometimes called the “textus receptus”).

Imagine that you are an editor.  You have more than one manuscript.  They differ, in small ways.  What text do you print?  Well, the early editors bodged along, guessing at the correct text.

But in the early 19th century, scholars in Germany began to evolve some rules to decide how to handle this problem.  The rules are not scientific; they merely make common sense explicit.  The creation of these rules marked the creation of “textual criticism” as a discipline, dedicated to making it possible to restore a text to something like what the author wrote, and remove scribal errors.

The editions that arise from this process are known as “critical editions”.  A critical edition is one where the text is as far as possible what the author wrote, but with the process of creating that text documented, and a “critical apparatus” of footnotes that shows where there might be uncertainty.

The scholars creating a critical edition try to assemble all the surviving manuscripts, where possible.  They try to compare them all.  They apply the rules of textual criticism to decide which versions of the text are original, and which are derived from the process of copying the work down the centuries.

Now it has been found by experience that various traps lie in wait for scholars doing this. Sometimes the “obvious” text is not right.  Greek texts in the 4th century BC were written in Attic Greek.  Later Hellenistic texts from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD were in a later form of Greek.  But from the 2nd century AD onwards, there was a revival of the custom of writing in Attic Greek, which persisted as late as 1453.  Consequently Hellenistic Greek texts could be “corrected” by an Atticising copyist.  The same process happens in Latin, where a difficult or unorthodox author can be “corrected”.  Some early editors certainly did the same, falsely correcting the author, rather than the manuscript.

Modern academic editions of ancient texts, in the original language, are always critical editions.  So to find a critical edition of any ancient author, you can use a library catalogue like the Library of Congress, or COPAC, and sort by date, most recent first.  Any academic edition of an ancient text published after about 1850 will probably be a critical edition.

Sometimes one  critical edition may become the “standard” edition of that text.  That is usually the one you want.  The only way to find out which edition this might be is to read around the subject, read reviews of the editions, and see which edition is referenced.  Other critical editions of the same author will normally indicate if one edition is widely used.

Some critical editions are still not very good.  Furthermore, most ancient literary texts do not even have a critical edition at all; the only editions are pre-critical.  The vast majority of ancient texts are of the church fathers, and modern scholars have preferred to edit classical texts instead.

You use what you have.

  1. [1]My thanks to MDR for pointing out that such an original has survived, of the epigrams of the 6th century author Dioscorus of Aphrodito has survived, plus some other corrections – thank you.

The things not stated, and opaque to later readers

In the Journals of John Wesley, we find a couple of descriptive passages which must leave a careful non-English reader scratching his head in confusion.

The first of these, from 2nd July, 1745, reads as follows:

I was reading my text when a man came, raging as if just broke out of the tombs; and riding into the thickest of the people seized three or four one after another, none lifting up a hand against him A second (gentleman so called) soon came after, if possible more furious than he, and ordered his men to seize on some others, Mr Shepherd in particular. Most of the people however stood still as they were before and began singing an hymn. Upon this Mr B. lost all patience and cried out with all his might, “Seize him, seize him. I say, Seize the Preacher for his Majesty’s service.” But no one stirring he rode up and struck several of his attendants, cursing them bitterly for not doing as they were bid. Perceiving still that they would not move, he leaped off his horse, swore he would do it himself, and caught hold of my cassock, crying “I take you to serve his Majesty.” A servant taking his horse, he took me by the arm and we walked arm in arm for about three quarters of a mile. He entertained me all the time with the wickedness of the fellows belonging to the Society. When he was taking breath I said, “Sir, be they what they will, I apprehend it will not justify you in seizing me in this manner, and violently carrying me away, as you said, to serve his Majesty.” He replied, “I seize you! And violently carry you away” No, Sir, no. Nothing like it. I asked you to go with me to my house and you said you was willing; and if so you are welcome, and if not, you are welcome to go where you please.” I answered, “Sir, I know not if it would be safe for me to go back through this rabble.” “Sir, (said he) “I will go with you myself.” He then called for his horse, and another for me, and rode back with me to the place from whence he took me.

There is no indication in the text as to why Mr Borlase suddenly changed his tune.  He grabbed Wesley by the arm and frog-marched him away from the scene, ranting all the while; and then, when Wesley finally managed to say something, suddenly Borlase denied doing any such thing.

Another similar passage here:

As soon as I came within sight of Tolcarn, (in Wendron parish,) where I was to preach in the evening, I was met by many, running as it were for their lives, and begging me to go no further. I asked “Why not?” They said, “The churchwardens and constables, and all the heads of the parish, are waiting for you at the top of the hill, and are resolved to have you: they have a special warrant from the justices met at Helstone, who will stay there till you are brought. I rode directly up the hill, and observing four or five horsemen, well dressed, went straight to them and said, “Gentlemen has any of you any thing to say to me? — I am John Wesley.” One of them appeared extremely angry at this, that I should presume to say I was Mr John Wesley. And I know not how I might have fared for advancing so bold an assertion, but that Mr Collins the minister of Redruth, (accidentally as he said,) came by. Upon his accosting me and saying he knew me at Oxford, my first antagonist was silent, and a dispute of another kind began: whether this preaching had done any good.  I appealed to matter of fact. He allowed, (after many words), “People are the better for the present,” but added, “To be sure, by and by, they will be as bad if not worse than ever.”

Again we see the sudden change in attitude.  A group of the local gentry have assembled, determined to arrest John Wesley and convey him to the magistrates, who are waiting for his arrival — doubtless to treat him as innocent until proven guilty.  And what happens?  Wesley speaks a few words, and suddenly the mood has changed.

To anyone unfamiliar with English society, this material must seem very abrupt.  It is easy — perhaps too easy — to imagine some dull source-critical academic, of the kind that is laughed at today, pronouncing these passages fictional; or interpolated; and using the awkwardness of the narrative as a reason.

But anyone who has been in England for five minutes knows the explanation.  In England, social status is reflected in the accent of the speaker.  The nobility and the labourer may speak the same language, but each will recognise the other simply by the way they speak.

We cannot hear the voice of John Wesley.  But we need not doubt that he spoke as a gentleman, in an Oxford accent, indeed. 

As soon as Mr Borlase heard him do so, and heard the educated words, he instantly realised that he was not dealing with a labourer, but with a man of property and standing who could, if he chose, prosecute him for assault and would be listened to by a judge.

Likewise the Cornish gentlemen had only to hear a few words, and observe his manner, to deduce instantly that their proposed actions were not possible or desirable to attempt on one of their own class, even before the identification by Mr Collins, the minister of Redruth.  It looks very much as if the luckless Collins had been brought along to identify their intended victim.  They had, perhaps, supposed that Wesley had been a poor bible scholar of Lincoln, rather than a gentleman.  A few words showed them otherwise.

It’s important to realise that all works are written in a kind of shorthand.  No literary text can explain every nuance to its readers, present and future.  There is an assumed commonality of understanding, impossible to avoid, between author and contemporary reader, which will not be the case a few centuries later.

Let us try to remember this, the next time some learned fool tries to argue from a presumed awkwardness in an ancient text.  The text may be interpolated.  But it may simply be that we don’t read it as a contemporary would have done.