Work with manuscripts can be exciting

In Leipzig, I was looking at a manuscript of a very clever mid-ninth-century forger we call ‘Pseudo-Isidore.’ What you need to know about him to follow this is: 1. He wasn’t named Isidore but was a group of people near Corbie; 2. ‘Ps-Isidore’ collected and forged a large number of conciliar canons and papal decretals; 3. Those are the bits of canon law that are universally binding.

For more on Ps-Isidore, read this. Then come back here. Or skip it, because what follows really has very little to do with any Isidores, pseudo or otherwise.

So, as I said, the manuscript in Leipzig was a Pseudo-Isidorian manuscript. This particular collection of canon law material was very popular in the Middle Ages and has various different transmogrifications. The transmogrification I was looking at is classified as ‘A/B’, and the bit I care about – Pope Leo I – contains 39 of Leo’s letters, ranging from Christology to canon law to your mom (maybe not that last bit).

So there I was, merrily reading away, when suddenly, a letter all about how Jesus is supposed to exist in two natures (if, miraculously, that interests you, click here) was talking about Manichaeans (for them, this isn’t bad) and how to discipline them.

I knew this was wrong. This Manichaean stuff was very familiar, though.

So I grabbed a phrase from the letter, pulled up my Word file of the 1753 edition of Leo’s letters, and searched for it. And, lo and behold, the sudden shift away from Christology and a certain archimandrite named Eutyches had brought us to Letter 7 of the 1753 edition. Well, that was interesting. I have recently translated this letter, which is why it was so firm in my mind. But I didn’t really expect it to turn up part-way through a different letter.

I am comparing the entirety of the texts of 17 of Leo’s letters, and Letter 7 is one of those 17, so rather than spot-checking, I buckled down and ploughed through to the end of that item. The next item was what I expected.

On my second and final day in Leipzig I came to Letter 7 in the manuscript. And there I found the missing text from the earlier letter! Well, that’s just dandy! I went through and did my missing spot checks. Letter 7 cut off precisely where the text from the day before started, and the other transposed letter began where it had left off. So that was that.

Also, the amount of text transposed was about the same length between the two letters.

This is exciting. This means that at an earlier stage of transmission, someone was copying out of a damaged codex (= book) and a folio (= page) was out of order. Maybe it was the scribe who wrote this very manuscript! Who knows? If it wasn’t him, it was someone who wrote a manuscript from which the one he copied was copied. Right?

Anyway. So the codex had a page out of order, and someone – maybe this scribe – didn’t realise that Leo was suddenly talking about Manichaeism and kept on copying. And thus the book I read in Leipzig.

Now, Leipzig Universitätsbibliothek, Rep. II 7 (Leihgabe Leipziger Stadtbibliothek), is not the world’s most important manuscript. Sadly, it is not even all there. It cuts off partway through one of Leo’s letters, thus not completing even the portion of the manuscript I was there to see. And it has suffered water damage and a frustrating patching job at the top of the last several folios (=pages). It is not the least important manuscript on earth, mind you; it is a ninth-century copy of Pseudo-Isidore, and Pseudo-Isidore is itself a ninth-century creation. Nonetheless, we have a vast multitude of Pseudo-Isidore manuscripts, and the non-forgeries in Pseudo-Isidore also frequently exist in collections and manuscripts beyond and before Pseudo-Isidore. In fact, some scholars (a Wikipedia danger word, but I honestly forget who and am typing this all from memory into MS Word with no internet access!) believe we have one of the major manuscripts used by the Pseudo-Isidorian forgers. So there you have that.

Nonetheless, this manuscript is exciting and important to me, and hopefully it can be for you, too. It illustrates the fragility of the text and the dangers of the centuries of hand-copying that lie between us and any ancient document. Here, because of an error, I am able to postulate the existence of a manuscript I have not seen, and even say what I think its state of (dis)repair was.

Textual criticism, my friends, is an exciting journey into history. The texts that you hold in your hands, the eighth-, ninth-, tenth-century books I work with, are windows into the world of history itself, into the transmission of ideas and words and concepts. They are glimpses of the world of the monasteries of Europe with their scriptoria full of monks hunched over their desks, writing out the pieces of world literature important to them – countless Bibles, Psalters, Evangeliars, Legendaria, and canon law books alongside the Church Fathers but also Virgil and Ovid and Lucretius and, in the East, Homer and Pindar and Plato and Aristotle.

And sometimes, mistakes were made. And then repeated. And then repeated with new mistakes. And sometimes, mistakes were fixed. Sometimes things that weren’t mistakes were ‘fixed’. And then Gutenberg, the printing press, philology, leading to critical editions and me and you and M L West’s Iliad with the many obolised passages, including Book 10 – all of this making ancient literature accessible to us at our fingertips, where the notes at the bottom of the page can lead us to the manuscripts.

So here is the magic of printing. Every time, it’s the same. And it takes only a moment. The preservation of antiquity was maybe helped by the many so-called ‘Renaissances’ from Aachen to Florence, but it is the press that has truly saved ancient texts for us today.

A few days ago, I was in Leipzig. I held in my own hands a book from the later 800s, written on animal skins (probably sheep, I think), only 70-something pages long. And there, written in faded brown ink, right before my eyes, were the quill-strokes of a scribe (possibly from Corbie, my source* tells me), preserving for me a damaged exemplar with a page out of order, perpetuating an error of transmission.

How cool is that?

*Lotte Kéry, Canonical Collections of the Early Middle Ages: A Bibliographic Guide to the Manuscripts.

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