As I was reading Kelemen’s Textual Editing and Criticism, I was struck by two things: I would not want to be the person diagramming manuscripts, and textual editing is intriguingly scientific. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the scientific method as “a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” Just focusing on the Lachmannian method and cladistics, we can see a blend of science and humanities. In its basic form, the Lachmannian method consists of constructing a family tree that shows similarities and differences in text, eliminating manuscripts that are essentially duplicate copies, reconstructing the archetype, and emending the reconstructed text where there are no clear answers.
Figure 1. Basic family tree using Lachmannian method.
Cladistics broken down is a system that uses computer technology to track down the archetype by creating multiple family trees and then choosing the most suitable one (which is usually the one that is closest to all of the witnesses, or documents, of a text). As illustrated in the figure below, there are multiple clade, which represent the witnesses or documents of a text. After looking at discrepancies between witnesses, a hyparchetype is discovered, which is then compared with other hyparchetypes to point toward an archetype or original text.
Figure 2. Basic outline for family tree in cladistics.
Both of these methods observe the various documents for a text, measure how close they are to one another, experiment with which seems to be the best text, and re-test to find a different text if there is not an agreement one which one is best. I think the argument can be made for textual editing belonging to science, but here is a more interesting conundrum: do these scientific methods help textual editors obtain a “truer” text?
Though there is potential for the people behind reconstructed texts to ruin the results, using humanities-based methods with scientific methods introduces the objective act of gathering data from texts and codifying them. But then the question is “are these results accurate when people are still involved?” Textual editors working with the Lachmannian method or cladistics have no other choice but to use their discretion because they often work with manuscripts that no longer exist or exist in a damaged state. For instance, Beowulf is a manuscript that dates back to about the tenth century and has been damaged; there is not even agreement on when it was written. R. D. Fulk writes on the many discrepancies in the Beowulf text: “although paleographical concerns must remain paramount in the interpretation of the remains of damaged words and letters, other considerations must not be ignored, including uneven reliability of the testimony of the first modern witnesses to the text.” Despite recent technology that has allowed editors to look at images of the manuscript under ultraviolet light and access these images electronically, there are plenty of discrepancies that Fulk highlights. Just one example of a disagreement in spelling is whether the manuscript says “wun/dini” or “wun/dmi.” Out of five editors who have worked on Beowulf, one editor could not decide, three agree that it is “wun/dini,” and another decides that it is “wun/dmi.” There is conjecture on what the manuscript actually says, as it seems to appear that under ultraviolet and normal light the text says “wun/dini;” it could just be an archaism from Old English or there may have been a fading in the text. Regardless of this disagreement, most editors seem to agree that the word needs to be emended just not how it should be emended. This presents a case where the scientific method provides data on the text, but the editor’s decision is what determines the text, especially since the text relies on the editor to decide whether there is an “n” or an “m.” This could possibly change the meaning of the text, but the scientific method could not help the text escape the editor’s decision.
Another issue with stemmatics/cladistics aside from working with texts that rely on the editor’s decision is its weaknesses in method. For example, cladistics only allows for two branches at a time in the family tree, whereas there could be many more than two copies made from a hyparchetype. This is where the “human judgment of the copyist comes into play,” which results in the same problem discussed earlier. In addition to the limited structures for family trees, the computer is unable to process versions of a text that may be similar yet unrelated. This presents a flaw in methodology, supporting the fact that using the scientific method cannot help us obtain a “true” text. However, these weaknesses are fully acknowledged: “In building its reconstruction, it acknowledges, moreover, that ‘no such work,’ as Tanselle puts it, ‘is ever definitive’.…it admits a kind of failure up front and in a sense, this is part of its strength and part of its scientific character. Its scientific approach offers not the original text…but a clear demarcation of the limits of our knowledge.” This acknowledgment may be similar to the limitations section in a research study; the researcher acknowledges the limits, but it does not take away from the results that were produced. There is value in the work that went into creating critical editions even if the methods to produce an original text are not perfect, though this may still not be a way to overcome the subjectivity of an editor’s decision.
Despite these methodological flaws in textual criticism, the scientific method does have its value in adding to the argument for a reconstructed text. The flawed human element is backed-up by multiple datasets that show how close a “true” text was achieved because anything short of a séance with the author is only going to give them support for choosing a certain text. We may never be able to reconstruct a text perfectly, but we can come close and have the data to support it. We can produce a lot of good data using these advanced methods in textual editing, but anything besides the data that points toward the best text is the editor’s speculation on what is the original, so while it is not futile to use these methods, it is important to remember that these types of critical editions are the editor’s arguments for the text that they think represents the original. The blend of science and humanities can help us go far in our search for a true text; we just need to remember that it is an ongoing journey.
- “scientific method.” Oxford Dictionary of English, accessed March 16, 2015, http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0741140.
- Erick Kelemen,Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 84-85.
- Ibid., 96-97
- Kenneth Sisam, “The ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript,” Modern Language Review (1916): 336.
- R. D. Fulk, “Contested Readings in the ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript,” Review of English Studies 56, no. 224 (2005): 192.
- Ibid., 195.
- Ibid., 196.
- Erick Kelemen, Textual Editing and Criticism, 98.
- Ibid., 101.
- Ibid., 98.
- Ibid., 101.
Fulk, R. D. “Contested Readings in the ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript,” Review of English Studies 56, no.224 (2005): 192-223.
Kelemen, Erick. Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.
“scientific method.” Oxford Dictionary of English. Edited by Stevenson, Angus. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Sisam, Kenneth. “The ‘Beowulf’ Manuscript,” Modern Language Review 11, no. 3 (1916): 335-37.