The Mutilation of Ancient Texts

MANY a lover of the classics, who has toiled long over a hopelessly corrupt passage of his favorite author, must have found himself extremely perplexed if he attempted to render to his own mind a satisfactory account of the processes by which the depravation of the ancient texts took place. These processes, from the multiplicity of influences which worked together to produce the final result, were so numerous that the task is by no means an easy one.

The first step in departure from accuracy lay in the errors which inevitably attended the transcription of books by hand. That this was the case even in antiquity we have the direct testimony of the ancient authors themselves, Cicero, in two letters to his brother Quintus, speaks of certain works which, he says, are so full of errors that he knows not which way to turn. Aulus Gellius declares the manuscripts of Virgil to have been in a state of confusion in the time of Hadrian; and Strabo, alluding to Aristotle’s writings, says that the same fate befell all authors in the hands of scribes who copied them merely for sale. Booksellers, indeed, did not always hold themselves responsible for the accuracy of the works which they furnished, even when they were copied in their own shops, and authors sometimes revised and corrected these as a favor to friends who had purchased them.

Another source of corruption lay in the readiness of pretentious scholars to emend the text, who quite as often, perhaps, emended passages which had come direct from the author’s hands. Gellius again speaks of the false and audacious emendators, — falsi et audaces emendatores,— and there can he little doubt that the evil was wide-spread. When we remember the treatment that Paradise Lost received at the hands of Bentley, and recall the way in which Lessing ventured to tinker the text of Pliny in order to prove that Pythagoras Leontinus had left a statue of Philoctetes, we can easily comprehend the ground of Gellius’ complaint. It is quite probable, too, that many passages commonly considered spurious or corrupt are merely early draughts, which the author would have revised and polished had he been permitted to carry out his design. This is preëminently true of certain of the works of Aristotle, which are regarded as the roughly sketched plan of treatises that were never elaborated. These rude outlines of the great Stagirite were subsequently filled up by the unscrupulous Apellicon of Teos, and after his death fell into the hands of the Romans, to be copied and sold in the book-stalls of the imperial city. Ovid, it is well known, committed the unfinished manuscript of his Metamorphoses to the flames, and the work was preserved only through copies that chanced to be in the hands of his friends. Every school-boy is familiar with the Story that Virgil destined his Æneid to a similar fate, because he had not time to correct and polish it, decies ad unguem. Had he lived to complete the task, it is probable that the blemishes which now mark the work, consisting of “ incongruities, gaps, contradictions, errors of memory and calculation,” and imperfect lines, — the latter amounting in all to fifty-eight,—would in great part have disappeared. One need only examine fac-similes of manuscripts showing the poems of Milton, Byron, and other great modern writers at various stages of completion, to be convinced how much less perfect their works would have been had they died before their task was done. Double readings and marginal suggestions would have crept into the text, instances of inferior diction would have abounded, and chaos would have prevailed where now we have some of the most admired passages of English literature. The desire of the two great classical writers mentioned above to burn their unfinished works affords a striking illustration of the fallibility of individuals in judging of the value of their own productions. In the case of each of these authors the poem which by so narrow a chance escaped destruction has proved to be not only the most popular, but in spite of all defects the best and greatest, offspring of his genius that has come down to modern times. How different would be the estimate now formed of them if judged by their other writings alone, there is no need of argument to prove.

It is not surprising that the evils already existing among those who used the classical languages as their mother tongue should have greatly increased in the centuries succeeding antiquity. This was less the case, perhaps, in the Eastern empire, where the love of literature never ceased, and where zeal for the masterpieces of ancient composition never died out. There scholars constantly devoted themselves to the great works of the past, and cultivated persons of all ranks, including even the nobility, frequently employed their time in copying. In the West, however, during almost the entire period of the Middle Ages, the transcription of books was largely in the hands of monks, who used only a corrupt and degraded Latin, and were incapable of appreciating the beauties and requirements of the classical style. By such scholars, old and pure although unfamiliar idioms were probably often rejected as errors, in a blind attempt to emend the ancient language to the corrupt style of later times. This result is well seen in those manuscripts of Herodotus which have passed through many transcriptions, copyists substituting the common forms of the dialect with which they were familiar for those of Ionic orthography and obsolete words.

In some cases mistakes grew out of the positive ignorance of scribes who did not understand the sense of what they were copying, and therefore had nothing to guide them in making out indistinct chirography. Errors of this kind abound in the manuscripts of Persius, but of course are not limited to him. In other cases, as in the tragedies of Seneca, they arose in the hands of more competent transcribers, who found difficulty in deciphering older codices, and were satisfied if they regained something like the original sense and metre. The difficulty was greatly increased by the numerous abbreviations then in use, those of earlier times being misunderstood and wrongly expanded by subsequent writers.

During the Middle Ages, till nearly the end of the thirteenth century, every period had its own spelling and graphic devices, and even its own Latin grammar, and later copyists frequently found it no easy task to interpret correctly the writing of their predecessors. These abbreviations and ligatures the curious reader will find collected and discussed in the third volume of Tassin’s Nouveau Traité de Diplomatique. So numerous were the mistakes arising from them that the French government at length passed a decree forbidding their employment in all public documents.

Added to these sources of error was the contempt which large numbers of the secular clergy and religious orders felt for the works of classical literature. The authors were godless heathens, who were already suffering in hell, and therefore could hardly be fit teachers or companions for the saints on earth. But taste for the classics never quite died out. Many minds still rose above the superstition of the age, and listened to the song, the narrative, the wisdom, of the great poets, historians, and philosophers of Greece and Rome. The kind and amount of labor performed in the cloister depended entirely on the individual tastes and temper of the abbot. If he loved learning he endeavored to awaken the same feeling in his monks, and exacted from them a certain amount of literary work. Most frequently this was limited to religious subjects ; yet the classics were not wholly neglected, and the copies which were made and preserved during seven centuries after the fall of the Western empire came in great part from the monasteries. That such labor was often of a merely perfunctory character there can be no doubt, the lack of interest of course increasing the liability to error.

Another source of corruption in the hands of monkish transcribers was the attempt to form expurgated editions of the classical poets by omitting or altering objectionable passages, — a process which is made intelligible when we remember that the same fate has befallen Shakespeare, the prince of poets, in our own day.

The learned Mabillon, in his work on Diplomatics, has written at some length to prove that the ancient authors did not suffer in transcriptions made by monks ; but it may be said in reply that Tiraboschi, himself a monk, admits such corruption to have taken place, remarking, however, that the historian Sarti rather ungallantly charged it to the copying of manuscripts by the nuns, who, he said, did not possess proper qualifications for the work. Du Cange, under the word Scriptores, in his great Glossarium, — a work, it should be remembered, which has been greatly extended and improved by the monks of St. Maur, — expressly says that boys and novices were employed in the important labor of copying, and that a certain amount of work was exacted of them daily. He also quotes Ordericus Vitalis in a precept exhorting the monks not to permit manuscripts to be corrupted by boys, thus showing the evil to have become so common that it required some authoritative utterance on the subject. He cites an old capitulary, which provided that in the transcription of ecclesiastical works only persons of mature age should be employed, — a fact from which we may infer the laxity that prevailed in the case of secular authors. We know, indeed, that all precautions did not preserve even the Scriptures from numerous errors. Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, and, later on, Cassiodorus and Lanfranc, were compelled to collect and compare as many codices as possible, in order to arrive at anything like the correct readings. Classical works surely can have been in no better condition. As early as the sixth century their antiquity and rarity in Italy, the increase of barbarism, and the incompetence of the copyists led the learned to the task of collating and emending texts.

The universality of the evil compels us to believe that the monkish copyists were not exempt. Those corruptions, indeed, which affected the teachings of secular authors are to be traced directly to them. Thus the Sentences of Quintus Sestius Niger, in the hands of the monk Rufinus, received a distinctly Christian coloring. Similarly in the excerpts from Tibullus, which were made from the ninth to the thirteenth century, the text is altered to suit the excerptor. Changes in the diction and amplification of the contents of Solinus are conjectured to have been due to the Scotch monks of Lake Constance. Works which were used as text-books in the mediæval schools suffered severely : owing, in part, to the degradation of style then prevalent; in part, it is probable, to attempts to bring them into harmony with the ethical and religious opinions of the day.

To deny the vast services rendered to literature by the monks and ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages would be both foolish and unjust; but while according to them the praise which is their due, the classical scholar cannot fail to see that they were often guilty of great negligence, and of the prejudices natural to their order. The censure commonly heaped upon them because they were not better patrons of secular learning is, however, hardly well considered. The monasteries were only religious houses, and were no more designed to cultivate or perpetuate polite literature than are the churches and charitable institutions of to-day. What the monasteries did in this direction was wholly gratuitous, and for it the world has reason to be thankful. The real ground of complaint against them is that they were not always honest in leaving the works of classical authors as they found them; but this grew out of the different literary ideal of the times, or from a conscientious desire to do for them what we moderns have done in the case of many of our most familiar hymns, which have been altered to suit the doctrines of any sect that chooses to use them. Still it would be wrong to suppose that all the corruptions made during the Middle Ages were due to monastic scholars alone. Secular grammarians existed in Italy till at least the seventh century, and in the East during the entire mediæval period. These, no doubt, exercised the assumed prerogative of their art in working over passages which failed to harmonize with their personal views. Copyists who wrought for hire were also well known, and in their ignorance and incompetency often confused both the words and the sense of the authors that fell into their hands. One person frequently dictated to several such writers at a time,— a fact which would greatly increase the liability to error. This custom is believed not to have prevailed to any great extent in the cloisters, where the rule of silence seems generally to have been observed. No century, moreover, was free from impostors like the unscrupulous Andreas Darmarius, who corrupted orthography, gave false titles to works, and struck out or inserted passages to suit his pleasure. Notwithstanding this, his transcriptions sold at a high price, and are found in almost all the large libraries of Europe.

The secularization of learning and the almost entire cessation of literary activity in the monasteries during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries placed the copying and care of manuscripts chiefly in the hands of lay scholars. In this movement the initial impulse came from the universities. Although the branches pursued in these institutions were chiefly canon and civil law, medicine and theology, — the study of the classics not having taken deep root till the latter part of the fourteenth century, — the need of trustworthy texts for the thousands of students who congregated there led to the employment of considerable numbers of copyists. These were under the direction of the rectors, or of special censors called peciarii ; they furnished books at prices fixed by the latter, and were responsible to them for the accuracy of their work. But in spite of all precautions errors were frequent, especially when the copyist left the routine with which he was familiar. The fact that the universities found such a course necessary in order to obtain transcriptions which they would he willing to recommend to their students implies that incompetent persons were already supplying the market with their own inaccurate texts. Over these neither the universities nor any other power exercised the slightest control.

Thus a new industry had sprung into existence, or rather an old industry had undergone a wonderful expansion to meet a new demand. On the revival of humanistic learning, beginning with Petrarch, the study of rhetoric, poetry, philosophy, history, and oratory gradually came to occupy the attention of Italian scholars, until the enthusiasm for belles lettres engaged all the finer intellects of the times. Competent masters of the classics found lucrative positions open to them in the palaces of wealthy citizens, the courts of princes, the offices of chancellors of the republic and secretary of the Roman curia, and also in the capacity of orators, ambassadors, readers, court-poets, and historians. The immense demand thus stimulated for the works of polite literature, as distinguished from law, medicine, and theology, furnished a new field for the activity of transcribers, who of course multiplied rapidly to supply the need. Not only were there local copyists in the various towns, but writers who prided themselves on their elegance and skill went around from city to city and from state to state, copying in the houses of wealthy individuals, and being entertained as guests during their stay. As this movement was to a great extent outside of the universities, the restraints applicable to transcriptions made under their control were no longer available. Thus the last means of maintaining accuracy was swept away, and this important branch of work was left largely in the hands of incompetent and even ignorant persons. Petrarch bitterly lamented the low taste of an age which placed the arts of the kitchen above the culture of the intellect; regretting that no law like that of Constantine now prevailed, which forbade the copying of books except by experienced and skillful writers. Cooks, blacksmiths, farm laborers, weavers, and other artisans, he argued, would not be employed without some test of their capability, but copyists were neither examined nor subjected to any restraint. Whoever could paint on parchment, or form characters with a pen, straightway was accepted as a reputable writer, though devoid of artistic ability, learning, or even intelligence. Correct spelling had long been lost, but of this he would not complain, if the copyists would write at all what was put into their hands. Their own ignorance might in that case be no less apparent, but the substance at least of the original would be preserved. Cicero, Livy, and especially Pliny, if they could return to earth, would no longer recognize their own works, and the modern author who had entrusted a book to these catch-penny bunglers would not himself know it when it was done. Indeed, after trying more than ten times to have his De Vita Solitaria transcribed, he complained in a letter to Boccaccio that he had not been able to obtain in many years a copy of a work which he had written in a few months. Yet for all such wretched work, adds the historian, the copyists were sure of a liberal reward.

From these facts it will readily be seen why, at the time of the Renaissance, calligraphy was so highly prized, and why, as in the case of Niccolo Niccoli, a biographer should deem it no slight praise to say of a scholar that he wrote a beautiful hand. Mercenary copyists, who, it is stated, often did not understand a word of what they wrote, thought only of rapidity, and cared no more for beauty or distinctness than for correctness. The most skillful handwriting, however, tended quite as little to secure trustworthiness of text, the rage for elegance overshadowing all else. Connoisseurs prided themselves on their libraries of ornately written books, and often paid but slight attention to accuracy, if they could only secure beauty. This was the case with the well-known collection made for King Matthias Corvinus at Florence in the latter half of the fifteenth century, the real value of which was by no means commensurate with the money expended in securing it.

The readiness to emend the texts of ancient authors seems never to have ceased from the times of the Greeks and Romans onward. St. Jerome laments the incompetence of the notaries and the carelessness of the copyists, who write not what they find, but what they understand; and while they seek to correct the errors of others succeed only in making greater of their own. “It surpasses all understanding,” says Ebert, “ how arbitrary a license was exercised in the Middle Ages in changing, augmenting, and at times completely transforming the ancient writers, especially the historians.” Criticism, as now understood, was unknown, and the most puerile judgments passed for profound scholarship. The plain meaning of authors was often not so much as suspected, and, in order to make their language conform to the interpretations of bungling commentators, it was changed to forms which the original writers would scarcely have comprehended.

Coluccio Salutato speaks of the extent to which, at the end of the fourteenth century, codices were corrupted and spoiled through ignorance and carelessness, through the presumption of those who were eager to better that which they themselves did not understand, through the unscrupulousness of others who purposely altered the text to introduce into it their own opinions, and through the caprice of certain teachers who would have the ancient authors speak in any way that best suited their whims. In many cases changes started merely as suggested readings. These were sometimes written in the margin, but frequently, in the case of both poetry and prose, as interlinear notes. In subsequent transcriptions by less competent or less principled copyists, such annotations were often incorporated in the text, or were accepted as the correct readings, lines or sentences of the original being stricken out, and these being substituted instead. Sometimes the scribe even carried his ignoble task so far as to cast these glosses into metre, in order to make them fit the text of poems.

The imperfect state of many manuscripts when discovered increased this unfortunate tendency. After the lapse of centuries the ancient codices were in many cases worm-eaten or defective, parts having been torn out or defaced, and rendered illegible by dust and neglect. These gaps or lacunæ in the text were often filled up by scholars eager to show their familiarity with the subject of which the author wrote, or their skill in catching his spirit and imitating his style.

In this way Lionardo Bruni undertook to restore the second Decade of Livy in a compilation entitled De Primo Bello Punico. Similarly, Gasparino da Barzizza attempted to supply the deficiencies of Cicero’s De Oratore, which up to that time had existed only in a mutilated condition ; but although the work is said to have been well done, it was rendered superfluous by the discovery of the entire treatise at Lodi about 1425. A similar attempt, in the case of Quintilian’s Institutions, came to naught from the finding of a complete manuscript of that author at St. Gall. At the present day such efforts would be regarded only as the dilettante trifling of a man of elegant leisure, but then they were eagerly caught up by copyists and booksellers, who, unwilling to issue defective editions, were not scrupulous about the means employed to fill out the text. A still more culpable course was pursued by unprincipled rhetoricians, who are said to have introduced whole passages into the works of the ancient orators, in order to secure stronger declamatory effects.

It is probably true, as Heeren and Ebert have stated, that the corruption of ancient literature took place chiefly in the latter half of the century preceding the discovery of printing. We have seen, however, that the process began among the ancients themselves, and did not cease during the entire period of the Middle Ages. These facts must be borne in mind to prevent their statement from being understood in too sweeping a sense. The establishment of the printing-press about the middle of the fifteenth century at length gave to literature a fixed and permanent form, and with this great event the work of corruption ceased.

William S. Liscomb.