Saturday, February 11, 2006



Tell people you're interested in classics, and most of them think you mean rock 'n roll music of the 1950's. Tell them you're interested in textual criticism, and they think you mean lit crit.

There is a lucid description of textual criticism in L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars. A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), chapter 6:
Since no autograph manuscripts of the classical authors survive, we are dependent for our knowledge of what they wrote on manuscripts (and sometimes printed editions) which lie at an unknown number of removes from the originals. These manuscripts vary in their trustworthiness as witnesses to the original texts; all of them have suffered to some degree in the process of transmission, whether from physical damage, from the fallibility of scribes, or from the effects of deliberate interpolation. Any attempt to restore the original text will obviously involve the use of a difficult and complex process, and this process falls into two stages.

The first stage is recension (recensio). The object of recension is to construct from the evidence of the surviving manuscripts the earliest recoverable form of the text which lies behind them. Unless the manuscript tradition depends on a single witness, it is necessary (1) to establish the relationships of the surviving manuscripts to each other, (2) to eliminate from consideration those which are derived exclusively from other existing manuscripts and therefore have no independent value (eliminatio codicum descriptorum), and (3) to use the established relationship of those which remain (ideally expressed in the form of a stemma codicum or family tree) to reconstruct the lost manuscript or manuscripts from which the surviving witnesses descend. When the most primitive state of the text which is recoverable from the manuscripts has been reconstructed, the second main stage of the critical process begins. The transmitted text must be examined and the critic must decide whether it is authentic or not (examinatio); if not, his duty is to emend it (emendatio), if this can be done with a reasonable degree of certainty, or to isolate the corruption. The task is often complicated by the presence of two or more variant readings, each with a claim to be the transmitted text. The whole of the second stage is sometimes given its traditional, though misleading name--emendatio.
We engage in something like emendatio every time we silently correct a misprint encountered in our reading. One of my favorite books on textual criticism, James Willis' Latin Textual Criticism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), has exercises for the budding textual critic in the form of corrupt passages from Latin authors to be corrected. Here is a corrupt passage from a modern English author, with a single misprint for you to emend. The misprint occurs in the printed edition of Aldous Huxley, Beyond the Mexique Bay (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), p. 163:
We lunched at Quezaltenango in a most forbidding German hotel. Pretentiousness, dirt, expense -- one was painfully reminded of inedible lunches in South Shields, of a week-end in Middlesborough, with a dark tide-mark of grit and the public hairs of commercial travellers running round the bath.
A.D. Godley, in a poem entitled Adversaria Critica, pokes gentle fun at the tribe of squabbling textual critics:
Wars and woes the world may fill,
  Nations rise and slaughter nations:
But the Emendator still
  Publishes his Emendations!
Still he clears the frauds away
  Which for long the public cozened:
Shows what Baevius meant to say,
  Shows what Maevius might, but doesn't:

Thus and thus -- if rules be rules --
  Said or sung the ancient poet;
Only criminals or fools
  See the truth yet fail to know it:
(When the views of other men
  Fill his soul with grief and loathing,
Not an editor but then
  Sticks at practically nothing!)

Still in gall his pen is dipt, --
  Save whene'er he advertises
That immortal Manuscript
  Which confirms his own surmises:
Only here is Truth secure,
  'Spite the scribes and 'spite the ages:
Inspiration clear and pure
  Wells from out its happy pages....

Say, O say, inquiring muse!
  Why do men of light and leading
Take these very serious views
  All about a various reading?
What shall make their feuds to cease?
  -- Death alone: which soon or later
Wafts alike to realms of peace
  Common man and commentator:--

In that dim Ellisian1 glade,
  There where Horace not ungently
Chaffs the very learned shade
  Of the Reverend Dr. Bentley,
While the bard of Chios' isle
  Sees with mere contemptuous pity
Men who deemed his epic style
  Moulded by a mixed committee--

There Professors famed, who once
  Each the other's creed refuted,
Jones, who branded Smith a dunce,
  Smith, who proved that Jones was Putid,
When for settlement they bring
  Texts corrupt that used to trouble 'em,
That the bard who wrote the thing
  Haply may resolve the problem,--

Then they'll hear it plainly put
  How the Laws they're both so pat in
Clearly point to nothing but
  Ignorance of Greek and Latin:
Thus at length will Smith and Jones
  Meet as brother meets with brother,
On the basis sure that one's
  Just as ill-informed as t'other!

1[We hope that Catullus and his Editor will protest if anyone accuses us of a misprint.]
The editor of Catullus is Robinson Ellis, and Ellisian is a pun on Elysian. I transcribed Godley's poem from his posthumously published Reliquiae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926), I, 125-126. In an effort to save myself the trouble of typing, I searched Google in hopes that the poem was already on the Web. I entered the phrase "still in gall his pen is dipt," to which Google in its usual helpful way replied:
Did you mean: "still in gall his penis dipt"?

Godley's picture of rival textual critics, meeting in the afterlife the author whose text they unsuccessfully tried to emend, reminds me of a story I once heard about the Vergilian scholar W.F. Jackson Knight. I've never read T. P. Wiseman, Talking to Virgil. A Miscellany (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1992), but from two online reviews (by Daniel P. Harmon and M.A. Gosling) it seems that Wiseman discusses the belief in spiritualism of Jackson Knight and his friend T. J. Haarhoff, also a classical scholar. My story (I can't remember where I heard it) also revolves around Jackson Knight's belief in the spirit world. Vergil is one of the ancient authors least in need of emendation, because his text has survived relatively unscathed. Nevertheless, Jackson Knight once read a paper at a meeting of scholars in which he proposed an emendation in a troublesome passage of Vergil. In the question and answer period after his talk, his fellow scholars pressed him on the necessity and fitness of his proposed emendation. Backed into a corner, Jackson Knight finally stated that he knew for a fact that his emendation was correct because Vergil himself, through a medium at a seance, had told him so!

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