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scribes and scholars

13 january 2013

I read Scribes and Scholars in its third edition (1991); the first and second appeared in 1968 and 1974, and the third was the last. L.D. Reynolds died in 1999; N.G. Wilson is still listed, as Emeritus, on the Oxford classics faculty webpage. Scribes and Scholars remains in print; The Independent's obituary of Reynolds referred to it as a "best-seller." Hyperbolic, maybe, but in its field, it seems to be a book that has made a lasting impression.

Reading Scribes and Scholars, you enter a world where the natural ambition of every many with intelligence and good taste is to improve the readings in classical texts. Few professions are so convinced that they are at the center of human achievement than classical textual scholarship. Baseball statisticians, political bloggers, and fly fishermen may occasionally acknowledge that there are other things in the universe worth knowing or doing. But experts on Greek and Latin textual traditions seem by-and-large convinced that there is nothing else worth doing in life. The history of their field, surveyed in Scribes and Scholars, seems to bear them out. After all, people (Reynolds and Wilson would say "men") have been ascertaining the readings of classical manuscripts for more than 2,000 years now. Most of the things we undertake in life were invented within our lifetimes, like reviewing random books on the Internet. Classical editing, though, comes with its own unbroken tradition, its common materials, its noble endeavors.

And much as we often see the classical tradition as being broken, almost beyond repair, by the Dark Ages, Reynolds and Wilson offer a lot of evidence that what Dark Ages there were were, in retrospect, brief. There is a severe literary bottleneck in late antiquity, for sure. Boethius could console himself by reading a lot of things we can't lay our hands on today. But a very long time ago, indeed certainly by the time of the Carolingian revival, about 1,200 years ago, in Western Europe, the quantity of Latin literature available to readers was roughly what survives today. Medieval Christianity may have a lot of other things to answer for, but as soon as the economy and society of the West was relatively stable, monks set about preserving the literary legacy of classical Latin with an assiduity that belies their reputation as blinkered pietists.

As others, like Felipe Fernández-Armesto, have argued, "the" Renaissance was merely the latest of many. Medieval Christians, East or West, didn't burn classical books; they were much more intent on burning contemporary heretics. For Christians (at least in Reynolds & Wilson's view of things), classical literature provided a mine for Christians: to extract the famous "Egyptian gold" of classical learning on many subjects, but also as sources of a prestigious linguistic tradition.

Reynolds and Wilson wouldn't have been 20th-century Oxford dons without sneering at the stupidity and faulty taste of the medieval abridgers and compilers who failed to produce works of mature judgment like the Oxford Classical Texts. "Savage footnotes on unjust editions," as Auden said of A.E. Housman, are something of their natural stock in trade. But during the vast survey they undertake in Scribes and Scholars, they're more often simply grateful for, and respectful of, the sheer amount of bibliographical labor that went into preserving a classical tradition that too often was under-utilized and less than influential on its surrounding culture.

The 13th century, for example, is much taken to task by Reynolds and Wilson for its lack of incisive textual emendation, but has much to recommend it, as well:

Manuscripts pour onto the market, but the text of these authors who have been copied for generations is getting more and more corrupt; the proportion of grain to chaff is getting smaller … Despite all this, the classics survived the tide of scholasticism and made significant advances where least expected. (115)
Reynolds and Wilson list some "heroes of the period," like Vincent of Beauvais and Richard of Fournival (115-16), who were meticulous systematizers of classical knowledge, despite their fundamental scholastic objection to the teachings of the works they studied.

In the 21st century, after the exponential growth in availability of texts provided first by printing in the 15th century and then by electronic texts within the last 20 years, we might fail to appreciate the lifelong efforts that scholars from antiquity through the Middle Ages deployed to maintain their books and libraries. Richard of Fournival, again, around the year 1250, had a private collection of 300 books. I have as many on the bookshelves in my office, and no doubt you have as many on your Kindle; but every one of Richard's 300 had to be copied out by hand from exemplars in weird scripts and puzzling literary dialects. Not that Richard did all the copying, though he did some; for-profit scriptoria, catering to wealthy and leisured scholars of the 13th century, were the amazon.com of their day. As Europe grew richer, the labor of scribes prefigured the labor of printers and programmers of later centuries. "The bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421-98) … was prepared to lay on forty-five scribes when a library was on order" (141). Forty-five employees doesn't perhaps sound like many, but in a time when a city like Florence might have about 45,000 residents, and telecommuting was not really an option, that's an investment in skilled labor analogous to finding people to write code for a new videogame.

Reynolds and Wilson always go back to the thing that matters most to them, judicious emendations of corrupt texts, discovering the "truth" of what Propertius or Ovid wrote (a discovery that is most prized when none of the manuscripts reflect that truth). Yet for all their pedantic positivism, they are keenly aware that books don't just leap transcendentally from the minds of the classical authors into the minds of their natural fellows, the editors of two millennia on. While squiriming with delight over Politian's dazzling reading of cerula for cera in a letter by Cicero (144), they are also keenly aware that Cicero himself sometimes didn't get things right in his manuscripts. And there was no concept of a "corrected edition" in Cicero's manuscript culture. You just had to release an updated text and hope more people would copy that one than the one you'd repented of.

Reynolds and Wilson realize that the history of copying literature by hand, though it may seem to lead inexorably to A.E. Housman and other incomparable modern critics, hasn't always proceeded from the same purity of motive that drove Housman to edit Manilius. Classical authors wrote for money and prestige; Christian exegetes reproduced their work to shore up doctrinal arguments and polish their Latin, for the glory of church or empire. Schoolmasters produced abridgements, anthologies, and abstracts for everyday pedagogical purposes, or to blacken the eye of their competition in academic squabbles of their day. If anything, the purest motives in the long story of textual transmission may have belonged to the stereotypical igorant monks of old. Armed with a pen and a knife, copying they knew not what onto they knew not wherefore, sitting on cold benches in bad light for the sake of the contemplative glow of linguistic labor and an evening's recompense of cold pottage and small beer: that's what enables us today to read, or even to ignore, the works of Seneca and Lucretius.

Reynolds, L.D., and N.G. Wilson. Scribes and Scholars: A guide to the transmission of Greek and Latin literature. Third edition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.