Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Qui Scribit, Bis Legit

On several pages of his informative and entertaining web site, Bill Thayer has this to say about copying ancient texts:
As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if successful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)
One might expect the proverb "Qui scribit, bis legit" to have originated with a medieval scribe, but the earliest occurrence in Google Books dates only from the nineteenth century, in Gaetano Foschini, I Motivi del Codice Civile del Regno d'Italia (Chieti: Scalpelli, 1867), unpaginated preface "Al Benevolo Lettore," where Foschini calls it "il precetto de' miei buoni Maestri," i.e. "the precept of my good teachers." The proverb doesn't appear in Renzo Tosi's Dizionario delle sentenze latine e greche — my thanks to Laura Gibbs for checking.

I also find the proverb, with a different word order, in The Linguist; or, Weekly Instructions in the French and German Languages, No. II (Saturday, April 2, 1825) 18:
Whatever DR. JOHNSON may have said to the contrary, the old Latin adage, bis legit qui scribit, (he who writes reads twice) remains perfectly true.
So far as I can tell, Johnson himself never referred to the Latin proverb, but he did discuss the alleged connection between copying and memorization in The Idler, No. 74 (Saturday, September 15, 1759):
Others I have found unalterably persuaded, that nothing is certainly remembered but what is transcribed; and they have therefore passed weeks and months in transferring large quotations to a common-place book. Yet why any part of a book, which can be consulted at pleasure, should be copied, I was never able to discover. The hand has no closer correspondence with the memory than the eye. The act of writing itself distracts the thoughts, and what is read twice is commonly better remembered than what is transcribed.
From childhood on, Johnson exhibited extraordinary feats of memorization. See, e.g., this story related by Boswell:
Of the power of his memory, for which he was all his life eminent to a degree almost incredible, the following early instance was told me in his presence at Lichfield, in 1776, by his step-daughter, Mrs. Lucy Porter, as related to her by his mother. When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, 'Sam, you must get this by heart.' She went up stairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. 'What's the matter?' said she. 'I can say it,' he replied, and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it more than twice.
Similar is this anecdote from his school days, also recorded by Boswell:
Mr. Hector remembers having recited to him eighteen verses, which, after a little pause, he repeated verbatim, varying only one epithet, by which he improved the line.
Despite Johnson's preaching and practice, in my own life "Qui scribit, bis legit" has proved useful. I often forget what I read, even if I've read it several times. But I used to fill sheets of paper front and back with Greek and Latin declensions and conjugations, copied over and over by hand, and some of them, at least, have stuck with me to this day.

George Cattermole (1800-1868), The Scribe

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