Looking for Manuscripts … and Then?

Looking for Manuscripts … and Then?

Huygens, R. B. C.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 4 (1987)


Long ago, during my college days, I remember our teacher of Latin telling us that a complete text of Livy had finally come to light. But, he added, “I’m still happy that rumor proved to be untrue.” At that time, although I wasn’t a fervent admirer of this Roman historian, such a point of view taken by a philologist was utterly beyond my comprehension, and it took me quite some years, having in the meantime become a specialist (of Medieval Latin) myself, before I realized that I, too, had gradually become none too keen to discover everything that was lost. While preparing my edition of William of Tyre, the author of the most important Crusader Chronicle, I was, of course, glad to be able to use several manuscripts which had remained unknown until then; but from the moment I had finished the tiresome work of collating them all (and had even done so twice), committed my text to the printer, and started proofreading, I would have considered the discovery of yet another manuscript, even by myself and however much it might still improve my text, a most unwelcome event indeed. Speaking about William of Tyre, I may mention that we know for certain he wrote two more works, in particular a History of Oriental Rulers, both of which seem to be definitely lost. And when I say so, I do hope you’ll believe me when I stress that, following the example of many others, I’ve really looked for it, and it is this very activity, the quest for manuscripts and texts, to which I would like to devote this essay. It may well be true that, to paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, the invention of a new culinary dish is a source of more happiness for mankind than the discovery of a new manuscript page 2 or even a new text, and I might have found a subject more in line with this assertion. But one cannot overlook the fact that even while superficially studying Medieval Latin literature, time and again one comes across authors whose production originally amounted to more works than we know now, and, the other way round, across many texts for which no author is mentioned all. The number of texts–classical, patristic and medieval–preserved in, or known from, only a single manuscript makes us realize how much we owe to, or have to blame for, pure chance or just bad luck. The fact that quite a few texts, which we know to have been written, still have not been discovered cannot be explained exclusively from the unimaginable losses incurred during the many centuries which followed their appearance; it is also due to the relatively small number of people who really do look for them. And those who do see their activity severely hampered by the fact that a large number of manuscripts have been catalogued only very inadequately or even not at all, or because they are to be found in collections to which one has no, or only limited, access, or because of the cost of visits to far-away libraries (not everywhere are funds available for this kind of intellectual activity), and also because many a librarian (in Europe, of course) has a tendency to look upon us as if we were all potential pilferers, and thus manages to make our journey to his treasures into something of a journey to Canossa. Under such circumstances it can never be excluded, even in the case of well-known and thoroughly researched authors, that a text which is considered lost is in fact still awaiting discovery and better days to come.

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