The value of antiquity

One of the lessons of textual criticism is that older is not always better. Scholars who study old texts and try to resolve the puzzle of the texts’ origin and evolution know very well that age is not a guarantee of validity. This basic principle is known as ‘codex retentior non deterior’, literally meaning that the more recent manuscript is not inferior. What is meant by inferior is that the text the manuscript contains is not of lesser value in relation to the absent original which the text seeks to recover. Like wine, some ancient texts age well, others less so.

Imagine the following situation. A philosopher writes a tract which is subsequently copied by hand by a number of scribes over several centuries. The scribes don’t know each other and the text is copied differently by each scribe. One does a good job, another leaves out several passages, another botches the whole operation. The problem with manual reproduction of texts is that each stage of replication tends to reproduce the errors of the previous stage. The transmission of manuscripts has often been compared to the game of Chinese whispers, but in the age before the printing press, at stake was not a joke, like in the famous game, but the written culture of previous generations and a society’s overall literary capital.

But let’s return to our scribes. As each scribe copies the text of the previous scribe, reproducing the errors which are already there, traditions of the text are established, some better than others, all different from each other. The only scenario in which they wouldn’t be different is when all scribes had copied the text perfectly. But that almost never happens. Errare humanum est, which the scholar understand that it is human to make errors when copying texts by hand.

Now, when we look at the results of our scribes over the long period, we find something interesting. One scribe copied the text perfectly at the first stage, and that tradition went on with very few errors being introduced over the centuries. But the earlier and older manuscripts of this tradition have all disappeared. The only manuscript representative of this version that we have is the least old of the group of manuscripts of our imaginary text that have survived history and time.

On the other hand, we have a manuscript, far older than the one just mentioned, which represents a tradition of the text where huge errors have been introduced without being corrected along the way. Some scribes also happen to be scholars and under their quill and expertise, two or more traditions of the text may merge, the errors of one being removed by confronting them with the text of another. This is called contamination. It may be good for the scribes of that age, but it is a nightmare for the scholars of our own.

So we have two manuscripts, one older but full of errors, the other far younger, but representing a much reliable and less corrupt version of the lost original. Which one is better? There are no rules here, only principles of precaution. Antiquity is not everything. This works for manuscript, but I have a feeling that its application is far wider than we might think.

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