Thursday, March 31, 2011

In the Forest of the Text

This post may be the most pedantic, obscure, and boring of all posts on this blog of arcana. Here I will ruminate upon a problem that has been perplexing me of late, as I draw near to completing my edition of Petrus Thomae’s Questiones de esse intelligibili. This is the matter of orthography of medieval texts. There are two schools, or extremes, on this issue, someone has taken every position in between them. On the one side we have the what me might call the purists, or perhaps their relativists; these scholars think that one should only edit a text that actually circulated, and do reproduce one manuscript exactly. One the other side we have the realist, or Platonic, school, which holds that we should repair the faulty manuscripts that have come down to us by comparing the readings they contain to those of other manuscripts. Of course, they are attempting to recreate the ideal form of the text, which is supposed to be that of the author. My own views, such as they are, are in the middle. I find medieval spellings (and general chaos) aesthetically pleasing comforting in an odd way, and the “standardized” or “classicized” or “modernized” editions come off as antiseptic, and too-clean for my taste. Not to mention, anti-medieval. The cold dead hands of the humanists refuse to stay in their Ciceronian coffins. With this in mind, observe the following quote from Rega Wood’s edition of Richard Rufus’ Physics-commentary (a highly controversial edition whose attribution to Richard Rufus is contested by all scholars of medieval Physics-commentaries).

Richard Rufus of Cornwall, In Physicam Aristotelis, ed. Wood, 76:
In the critical text itself, we do not reproduce the abbreviations, the punctuation, the capitalization, or the spelling. To do otherwise would be to make the edition inaccessible to modern students of philosophy and useful only to trained medievalists. Medieval spelling practice is never uniform and often unclear. So if we followed scribal practice, we might spell the same word differently on the same page, noting in the apparatus cases where the abbreviation employed made it imposible to determine what spelling was intended. Like manuscript abbreviation, capitalization, and punctuation, medieval spelling reflects scribal, rather than authorial, decisions. Retaining manuscript spelling would make it difficult for philosophers equipped with an ordinary Latin dictionary to get through the text; modernizing it makes the text accessible to people with minimal competence in Latin.
Now most of this is fair enough. It would be impossible to reproduce most of what she mentions, as no two manuscripts ever agree on such things. Such and edition would be unintelligible to everyone, medievalists included. I also take offense at the jab at medievalists. Sadly, we are mighty among historians, but to philosophers we are mere nichileitates. One might mention that medievalists are just about the only ones actually interested in medieval philosophy. But I digress. Wood’s comment that such phenomena represent scribal, not authorial, intention is difficult to swallow. After all, all medieval authors wrote in ... (wait for it...) medieval latin. And in the case of Thomas Aquinas we have autograph material, which does not follow classical orthography. The Leonine commission is currently re-editing all their previous editions and preserving the original spelling. But all Wood may mean is that the individual spelling on a particular folio (say, “ydea” followed two lines later by “idea”) is not the result of authorial intention. Fine. Let’s move on to the final remark. Wood thinks that the manuscript spelling would make it hard for philosophers with an ordinary latin dictionary to get through the text, while modernizing (that word again!) the text means that minimally competent people will be able to read it. I have two responses to this.

1. Is it really that hard? Does ydea/idea, preterea/praeterea, ydemptice/identice, nichil/nihil really cause hardship? The only areas it might be tricky are when you have words that could be adverbs or adjectives: “obiective” could be either “obiective” or “obiectivae”. But context surely could be your guide (otherwise, I suggest attendence at one of the yearly academic conferences devoted to the theme of “Text and Context: Interdisciplinary Textual Communities”).

2. Why should it be accessible to people who are only minimally competent at latin? I would think that someone who was actually interested in reading philosophy in latin would not remain minimally competent for long. And someone who did not care enough to polish their latin would probably just be mining the text for something to run through the logic machine. Furthermore, I for one would not want to read an article about a medieval argument by an author minimally competent at latin; what guarantee would there be that they had the argument right? So, in the end, I think editions, like philosophy, should offer a healthy amount of forbidding gloom to the casual wanderer; enough to tantalize with half-guessed wealth, but not given freely from the street corner.


Brandon said...

It reminds me of people who want to modernize Chaucer's Middle English. Sure, it might be a good idea if your intended audience is junior high students; otherwise you are imposing yourself between the text.

Deacon David said...

For some texts, at least, why not just produce editions that are page for page digital photos of the manuscript? Surely, given today's tech, this would be no more expensive than typesetting.

BTW, a colleague reminds me that today is, apparently, "Hug a Medievalist Day." Most of my colleagues over the years would rather hoist than hug, but one supposes one could do both. Wassail, cari interlocutores!

Bubba said...

A. The Pseudo-Richard Rufus of Cornwall's Physics commentary has at least one de facto scholar of medieval Physics commentaries who believes it is authentic, namely the one who published it.

B. Here's the problem: Deacon David isn't half wrong. If you want to follow the new philology to the letter, just publish digital reproductions with a facing-page transcription. Cf. the Singleton-Petrucci-Petrucci-et al. edition of the Decameron, and Vittore Branca's response.

C. So let's be honest, we're not publishing editions for those who are doing linguistic studies, and our editions will never be used by those who want to study macaronic influences on medieval Latin; or even by those who want to look at regional variations in medieval Latin in the fourteenth century. Why? Because even the most faithful transcription we can make will still be colored by our preconceptions of what the Latin should be. We are, after all, no more than copyists of the copyists we copy. So those guys will go to the manuscript.

At the same time, in editing a text, we are expected to bring it to the norms of modern comprehensibility. I love manuscripts, but I only really seem to understand what's written in them after I transcribe them (it helps to type at 100 wpm), and can format the text as it needs to be. A properly punctuated and formatted edition matters more than everything else.

Another detail: the "Platonic" (aka Lachmannian) approach to editing and the "Relativist" (or "Realist", aka "Bédier") approach might be different philosophical approaches, but for me, the methodology that should be applied varies according to the particular text in question (and, to be honest, both approaches are wrong, but at least Bédier had the good sense to limit his comments to French literature and to point out that we needed to pay more attention to how texts are produced and distributed). Moreover, when you're adapting a text to an edited form, you have to decide on an orthography. What happens when you don't have an autograph, and no manuscript is so good as to justify itself as the One to Follow?

So, in short, I'm happy putting everything in my own take on medieval orthography. But it ain't the orthography that the author of the text would have used. Nor is it precisely what the manuscripts communicate (but, and this is a philological point I will insist on, the manuscripts rarely communicate an exact reading of anything; just a more likely understanding) So I don't mind dealing with those who like mediaeval orthography (aka 'classicizing orthography'). It's really a small problem compared to the other ones, like who actually wrote that Physics commentary, or if that manuscript actually says what the editors claim it does (hint: it doesn't).

Lee Faber said...

Thanks Bubba, these are all good points. I too transcribe as quickly as possible, once I am used to the hand. I rather liked Henninger's approach, to follow the mss., but not "slavishly", which seemed to mean that he could pick what he liked without having to be "scientific" about it or justify it much.

Bubba said...

Please excuse my excessive ranting. There was a baseball game on. But, certainly, tedious topics are the most fun.

In short: any orthography we apply is artificial. Even the Leonine folks, with their autographs of Thomas Aquinas, fabricate an orthography that resembles what Thomas Aquinas would have used, if he cared about orthography (and, being medieval, he didn't).
If you don't have the autograph, and choose an orthography based on the surviving manuscripts, that orthography runs the risk of being very different from the spellings the author would have used. If you're editing Bédier-style, this isn't so much a problem, but, unlike Bédier, our texts are rarely copied by people who, at the same time, understood them. Even good copies require reflection to grasp their meaning, and will contain passages that are garbled. That's why a completely artificial technique (Platonic, Lachmannian, Stemmatic what have you) often gets called upon. And while such a technique might pretend to reconstruct the original text, it can't do so for the original spelling. Copyists do not copy spelling; therefore a classicized orthography reflects the author's intent as much as any other.

Classicized orthography has the advantage of being the orthography that is taught in schools; while beginners might have difficulty (and in any case, they are to be encouraged), specialists in pre- and post-medieval philosophical Latin will also find it harder.
On the other hand, if a medievalizing orthography is akin to dressing an italian man in lederhosen and a bowler hat to look "European", classicizing is putting him in a tutu. And how do you classicize a good medievalism like haeccitas? (But should I really follow the manuscript when it writes hequitas?)
In the end, the Pseudo-Rufus is classicized because that's how it was done at St. Bonaventure, and most "medievalized" orthographies are in practice nearly indistinguishable from their "classicized" counterparts, except for the ae-diphthong, the occasional use of y, nichil and some ps.


Michael Sullivan said...

As a mere philosopher with only the most rudimentary paleography, pretty much completely dependent on the whims of the mighty mediaevalists for what texts I have to read, I find this subject enthralling.

It seems to me that in constructing an edition the editor has to balance between the competing claims of the mediaeval book, its authorial exemplar (the mens auctoris), and its most likely modern reader. But since these different claims manifest themselves very differently in different kinds of texts they can't be addressed in a uniform way. I'm a big fan of the PIMS texts, which simply reproduce a single supposedly representative manuscript; for a poem or a devotional treatise, etc., I think there's a lot to be said for getting as close as possible to an actual codex, with minimal intrusion on the editor's part.

On the other hand, for philosophy and theology, it's clear that that approach is inadequate largely because the aims of the reader are different. For myself, anyway, what I want is to understand the arguments, not (primarily) to taste the spirit of the middle age, and in order to expedite that a lot of editorial interference - that is, assistance - is helpful. Furthermore when reading Scotus my own concern is not to read a book the way a friar might have read his codex, nor even to reconstruct in my own mind a simulacrum of the set of Scotus' opinions on any given day, but to actually reach a better understanding of the Trinity, or the issues surrounding individuation, or whatever. In this case philological concerns are pretty secondary to me, as opposed to when I'm reading, say, Walter of Chatillon. I want the article headings, fontes, paragraph numbering, footnotes telling me which arguments are being responded to, etc. (although it seems to me that the Vatican edition can go way overboard in this department, with its footnotes informing me that paragraph 2 is continuing the argument made in paragraph 1), way more than I care about the spelling.

Nevertheless I really like a medieval orthography, even if the reasons are more aesthetic than anything else. The Aquinas of the modern Leonine volumes seems much less antiseptic to me, much less like arguing with a monument or an institution, than the "manualist" Aquinas of say the older Marietti editions. If we need the apparatus fontium to remind us that our authors were not thinking in a vacuum, but have an intellectual context, a medieval orthography can do something to convey the cultural context, a recognition that these abstract arguments are being formulated by a particular man in a particular era and not by Cicero or a post-Tridentine bureaucrat. I think this is a sufficient reason to go in this direction for it as long as it doesn't unreasonably impede understanding.

Michael Sullivan said...

Which leads me to wonder, who does Rega Wood expect to read her edition? How many contemporary philosophers with only a minimal competence in Latin are even likely to want to consult an obscure Physics commentary from long long ago or to care whether it may or may not be by Richard Rufus of Cornwall? Is pandering to this hypothetical minimally competent philosopher a sufficient excuse for making the less useful, or even less attractive and pleasant, to the people likely to actually read it?

The other thing that makes me curl my lip at the quoted remark is the notion that this minimally competent scholar is going to be reading scholastic texts with an "ordinary latin dictionary". In my experience someone coming to 13th century philosophy and theology from a year or so of Ceasar is going to have a very rough time, not because of orthography but because of vocabulary. Someone with minimal Latin is not going to be able to readily comprehend his book using a Collins or Cassel or Lewis and Short. When one realizes this one will look far and wide in vain for a good scholastic dictionary. The best thing you're going to find will probably be DeFerrari, but even he is not ideal, since to a reader of anything but the Summa theologiae it's going to contain a ton of useless entries and become less complete and useful the further one gets in time or subject matter from St Thomas.

The only way to become able to read scholastic texts with comprehension, then, is just to read a whole lot of them - as Aristotle says, one learns to do it by doing it - and by then one will be more than minimally competent, will not need, or hardly ever need, an "ordinary Latin dictionary", which is usually useless, and will find that orthographic variation presents no difficulties. And it seems to me that by the time one decides he'd like to see what pseudo-Richard has to say, he's most likely already at this stage, having at this stage most likely, and quite rightly, already read a lot of Aquinas et al.

Michael Sullivan said...

It reminds me of people who want to modernize Chaucer's Middle English. Sure, it might be a good idea if your intended audience is junior high students; otherwise you are imposing yourself between the text.

Chesterton argues at some length for modernizing Chaucer in his book on Chaucer.

The problem with the "imposing yourself between the text" argument is that the editor is already doing this as soon as he formulates his criteria for choosing readings. This is obvious as soon as you compare different editions of the same text. For instance, neither the old Skeat edition nor the current Riverside Chaucer is modernized, but to me (a non-specialist in Middle English who has nevertheless read a great deal of it) the Skeat edition is consistently more intelligible than the Riverside and by no small margin.

It's not even easy when there's only a single manuscript of a work. I have a number of editions of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, and some of them simply transcribe what's in the manuscript. But I have one, for instance, that has a funny compromise. The editor picks one spelling for every word, but only a spelling used at least once in the manuscript, and he picks the one closest to Chaucerian or modern usage. This certainly makes it easier for me to read. It's a less accurate presentation of what's in the manuscript, but is it a compromised as a presentation of the poem?

Michael Sullivan said...

There are editors who will "modernize" Milton, which I find ludicrous. Even Shakespeare and Spenser shouldn't need retooling beyond the occasional gloss, and if they're too hard for a modern reader, they need to be worked up to, not brought down lower.

Further back than that, though, it's hard to tell. What about Malory? Today we have two choices - either Vinaver's edition of the Winchester manuscript, or the Caxton. But Vinaver's goal is to reproduce just what his Thomas Malory wrote down in his jail cell, whereas Caxton's very different goal is to present the definitive version of the Arthurian legendarium. These days Vinaver is for scholars and is unmodernized, whereas the the "popular" editions like the one in the Modern Libarary etc., are usually Caxton, and fully modernized. In neither case can you get the book which people actually read for generation upon generation, since the Caxton has been tooled and retooled almost as much as King James, whereas the Vinaver produces a form of the work no one read for centuries and which had no effect on English literature. I think a lot is lost in the modernization, and so I usually read the Vinaver, but I think a lot is also lost without Caxton's chapter headings and colophons.

Personally I find it hard to get too worked up about getting the "Platonic" version of what Thomas Malory's pen set down in his cell, since after all Malory's own mind was not exactly the heavenly exemplar of Arthuriana. He was one link in the chain from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes down to Caxton himself, not maybe not the most important one. It's Caxton's book that was the English Arthur, which was based on Malory, which was based on the Vulgate Cycle and the prose Morte, etc. So why should we privilege the Winchester manuscript? But if I want to read Caxton, why can't I read him in Middle English?

Michael Sullivan said...

But, certainly, tedious topics are the most fun.

I agree!

Lee Faber said...

And apparently they generate the most comments.

Lee Faber said...

Well, here I am back on the fence. I suppose it depends now on whatever series agrees to publish my fool text.

Brandon said...

Personally I much prefer the Riverside for everything but light reading. A decent modernization can be useful for just quick acquaintance; but the greater the modernization, the less valuable it is for close study. Conceivably there are people who will read Rufus of Cornwall or Petrus Thomae for light recreational fare, but the mind balks at the idea that this could be any great number of people.

Editors are craftsmen of a particular sort, liberal artisans; and it is true that they are making work that depends crucially on their choices. But I regard arguments that editors always interpose themselves between texts as making the same errors, albeit in a more limited domain, as arguments that we all must be perspectivists because we all have perspectives, or that we only know ideas because we always have to have them, or that we can't know things for certain because of the possibility of an evil deceiver (who is, after all, merely the most editorial of all editors), or, for that matter, that you can't possible understand an argument outside of its original language because all communicated arguments are communicated only by way of language.

To some extent my view here is due to the fact that I am continually having to deal with editorial choices in my own field of early modern philosophy: editors, I have discovered, do what they do largely because they are too lazy to do something that would obviously better. Given the massive amount of work good editing requires, and the pressures of deadline, publisher limitations, and the like, that's not really surprising; but there are constant problems with editors dropping as irrelevant to the argument things that obviously are or with them introducing new errors or things likely to mislead in the process of trying to rework things that might confuse.

Because they are artisans, editors have a threefold responsibility: to respect the ends of the work (and their requirements), to respect the material (and its unruliness), and to respect the tools available to work it (and their limits). I am a big fan of the view that because of these responsibilities competent editing requires always telling the reader somewhere of every single conscious editorial choice (and the better the editor, the more of the choices will be conscious) and as precisely as possible its effects and potential limitations. That's the real point of editorial apparatus: not to show off erudition, but to give readers a starting point for going beyond the editor and the limits of his choices.