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Manuscript Studies
Medieval and Early Modern

V.ii. Scribal Error

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The most common types of alteration made by scribes to the texts that they copy are these:

There are two traditional "doctrines" of textual criticism, based on the assumption that scribes always simplify and "trivialize" the author's text (cf. Lee Patterson's essay on the Kane-Donaldson edition of Piers Plowman, reprinted in his Negotiating the Past):
difficilior lectio potior: the more difficult the reading the more likely [it is to be authorial];
brevior lectio potior: the shorter the reading the more likely [it is to be authorial].
Such doctrines assume a romantic concept of the superior genius of the author.

There are currently some challenges being mounted in the way that textual critics view scribes, in the work of Jerome McGann among others, in part based upon theoretical challenges to the romantic concept of the author. Derek Pearsall summarizes, and applies to medieval English texts, some of these ideas in his "Texts, Textual Criticism, and Fifteenth Century Manuscript Production." On pp. 125-126, for instance, he notes that an editor who accepts the doctrine of difficilior lectio must deny that scribes could improve their originals. Yet the tradition of Chaucer manuscripts, among others, proves the presence in fifteenth-century manuscript production of quite intelligent editors. Further (pp. 126-127), especially with respect to the romances (Beves of Hamtoun, for instance), Pearsall declares that "each act of copying was to a large extent an act of recomposition, and not an episode in a process of decomposition from an ideal form." Rather than any sort of mechanistic application of "doctrines," then, postmodern editors will need to consider each case on its own merits.

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[ Course Notes: Introduction ] | [ I. Towards a definition of "manuscript studies" ] | [ I.ii. The four branches of bibliographical study ] | [ I.iii. Topics in the social history of texts ] | I.iii.a The "Rescue" of Medieval Manuscripts from Grocers and Fishmongers | [ II. Diplomatics ] | [ III. Codicology ] | [ III.ii. Decoration and Illumination ] | [ IV. Paleography ] | [ IV.ii. Historical Notes ] | [ IV.iii. Writing Implements ] | [ IV.iv. Letter Formation ] | [ IV.v. Special Characters in English Manuscripts ] | [ IV.vi. Scribal Abbreviations ] | [ IV.vii. Punctuation ] | [ IV.viii. Paleographical sample: William Herebert, OFM (early fourteenth-century England) ] | [ Herebert sample, with transcription ] | [ Herebert sample: enlargement of full page reproduced at high resolution ] | [ V. Textual analysis (James E. Thorpe) ] | [ V.ii. Scribal error ] | [ V.iii. Kinds of edition ] | [ V.iv. Examples of over emendation on insufficient grounds ] | [ VI. Linguistic competence (an example): An Outline History of the English Language ] | [ VII. Libraries and archives: ] | [ VII.ii. British Library Manuscript Collections ] | [ VII.iii. Bodleian Library Manuscript Collections ]

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© 1998, 2015 Stephen R. Reimer
English; University of Alberta; Edmonton, Canada
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Created: 2 Dec. 1998; Last revised: 30 May 2015

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