Is the Author Really Better than his Scribes? Problems of Editing Pre-Carolingian Latin Texts

Page of text (folio 160v) from a Carolingian Gospel Book (British Library, MS Add. 11848), written in Carolingian minuscule. Text is Vulgate Luke 23:15-26.Is the Author Really Better than his Scribes? Problems of Editing Pre-Carolingian Latin Texts

Michael Herren

The Ars Edendi lecture: given at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, 21 September (2010)


I would like to begin by thanking Alexander Andrée for inviting me to give this year’s Ars Edendi lecture. When he first mentioned the subject to me, I thought that he was inviting me to address a gathering of gourmets. I soon realized the he was talking about editing, not eating. Even so, one might imagine an Isidorian etymology running as follows: ‘Editor dictus est ab edendo, quia verba scriptorum edit, id est manducat.’ In Latin, of course, the functions covered by English ‘editor’ were entrusted to a grammaticus. An editor, in the Latin sense of the word, might publish his writings, but he does not edit them. An editor brings forth, or “births” his writings. The Latin word editor thus comes from ēdo (‘give out’) with a long e. Not all the meanings attached to Latin editor are nice. Meaning no. 1, as given by the Oxford Latin Dictionary, is ‘one who emits exhalations’. This serves to explain why I prefer the folk etymology based on short-e edo. We editors dine on words, we rumin- ate on their meanings, and sometimes we have to eat our own words, as I shall admit over the course of this lecture.

All this may lead to exhalations, but it is our ruminations, not our exhalations, that render us editors. Sometimes we feel that because of them we know our author better than the author’s scribes. This brings me straight to the question in the title of this lecture: ‘Are authors better than their scribes?’ The simple answer, of course, is yes. No one in this audience needs to be reminded about the many kinds of mistakes a scribe can make, or told about their causes. We know as well that scribes not only made mistakes in transcribing, the smarter ones tried to correct readings they perceived as mistakes, and in doing so, often introduced inauthentic readings, or corrected, say, a factual error that the author actually made.

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