What It Is That I Do

I leave for Oxford tomorrow. I’ll be there for two weeks. Although I will visit several colleges and a couple of museums whilst there, the main event will be the library of Oriel College, which contains a manuscript (henceforth abbrev as ms) that I will spend most of my days consulting.

In consulting this ms I will have with me print-outs of the 48 letters of Pope Leo I that the ms contains. These print-outs are of an edition of Leo’s letters published by the Ballerini bros in 1757. I will mark on my print-outs the variations/discrepancies between the ms and the Ballerini. Because I am thorough, I will mark the variations in spellings as well as when the words themselves were entirely different. Sometimes the ms may be missing an entire line or two of text the Ballerini have; sometimes the ms may have a few words the Ballerini lack.

It sounds a lot like proofreading, as though I am proofreading the work of the Ballerini bros against an actual mediaeval ms.

Except, actually, I’m proofreading them against one another. And I’ll be proofreading them against a 31-page list of mss scattered throughout Europe containing various of Leo’s letters. Some of the differences I will notice are possibly errors on the part of the ms, possibly the Ballerini — some of them, I may conclude that neither the ms nor the Ballerini were right in light of something another ms elsewhere may say.

Very few of these mss I’ll be reading over the next several years will be the same, you see. The ms I will read this week is from the 1100s, containing a collection of papal and ‘conciliar’ (ie. church councilly) material compiled at the beginning of the sixth century. That puts it seven hundred years after Leo actually wrote his letters and 650 after the compilation of the collection. There are many different people between Leo and this ms. Some of them copied Leo’s original letters for circulation within his lifetime. Eventually, some other people gathered together bunches of Leo’s letters and wrote them together in books (codices), usually with other letters by other Popes, typically arranged chronologically, not only by pope but also within each pope’s body of letters.

If you’ve ever copied something out by hand, you’ll know that it’s easy to make mistakes. If you’ve ever looked at an ancient or mediaeval ms, you’ll realise that it’s doubtless even easier to make mistakes in the copying of those. So imagine four hundred, five hundred, one thousand years of manuscript tradition before you get to the copy that sits in front of you.

Each will have its enchanting differences. And my job is to look at the vast array of differences and decide which version is closest to what Pope Leo I wrote at some point between 440 and 461. Some mss and their family members will be more accurate than others. I will have to judge this by myself.

Hence the idea that I am proofreading everything against everything else.

And when it comes to punctuation and paragraphing and chapters as well as variant readings, I have the Ballerini and other early printed editions, and then Silva-Tarouca’s selection of letters he printed in the early 20th century, then Schwartz’s other selection of letters from the mid-20th century.

The major variants — options that come up a lot or very early but which I will decide are not actually from Leo — I’ll mark in the notes at the bottom of the page in my final edition.

This is what I do. Right now, I’m collating mss. Later, I’ll make a printed edition of the letters of Pope Leo I. It’s called textual criticism, and people do it to all texts, especially ancient and mediaeval ones.

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