Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

How texts evolve

Posted by universalis on 14 December 2014

In normal times, the way a text survives is by someone copying it out before the manuscript falls to bits and is lost. Of course errors happen, and it is then the job of scholars to collate the existing texts and work out what the original was.

Rather a good example of this has just come up, so I thought I would post it here.

On the Universalis web site, at the beginning of the psalm for the Office of Readings for the second Saturday of the four-week cycle, the following quotation appears:

These things we written down to be a lesson for us who are living at the end of the age (1 Cor 10:11).

This is obviously a misprint. The question is, if you are a monk copying this out, what do you write?

  1. These things we written down… This is obviously wrong, but it has the merit of being identical to the text you are copying from.
  2. These things were written down… because the scribe who wrote what you are reading left out two letters.
  3. These things we have written down… because the scribe who wrote what you are reading left out a word.
  4. These things we wrote down… because perhaps the scribe who came before you didn’t have a very good hold on English grammar.

If you think carefully through the options you’ll see that one of them makes more sense than the others, in the context of the whole sentence. So as a conscientious scribe you may decide to write it, removing an error. But the reason I am writing this post is that the person who pointed out the error to me (to whom thanks) suggested the wrong correction. If he had been copying the manuscript, then his manuscript and all its children would have acquired an error which, no longer being obvious, would then have persisted from generation to generation.

It is the rather interesting job of scholars to collate all the manuscripts of an ancient text, work out which ones are related to which, and work backwards through the variations to decide which the original wording was, and which the error, and which the ‘correction’. It is still more interesting when the original text had no error at all but the copyist thought that it did (for instance, an archaic form, or a subjunctive) and ‘hypercorrects’ something that was never an error in the first place…


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