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Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices: A Global Comparative Approach edited by Anthony Grafton and Glenn W. Most

Reviewed by Dennis Duncan, Darwin College, Cambridge

Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices: A Global Comparative Approach, edited by Anthony Grafton and Glenn W. Most. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. £101.00. ISBN: 9781107105980.


Of the works that have come down to us from classical antiquity, none survives in its original authorial manuscript. The period of time between Virgil’s death and the earliest surviving manuscript containing a substantial portion of his poetry is roughly five centuries. For most other classical writers, where our oldest copies were made in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, the gap is twice as long. As Robert Kaster puts it in this collection, the classics as we have them today, are ‘all […] products of uncountable acts of copying’ (111). But copying is a fraught practice, almost impossible to do at any length without errors creeping in. Editors are then left with the job of comparing multiple versions of a text in order to establish a genealogy, working backwards to reconstruct the earliest version they can. Which came first? At which stage did each change arise? Even here, however, we are likely to be confronted with moments of clear nonsense, the result of errors that can’t be methodically unwound, committed at stages that are unknowable, irretrievably lost to us. Here, the editor’s job is to propose, to provide a commentary on how modern readers might interpret a text that is obscure.

            Thus, copying, collation, and commentary are among the primary textual practices by which the ancient is preserved. To these we might add cataloguing, producing a structured record of the texts in within a particular location or field; and canonization, the conferring of authority on some subset of the whole - the ‘reliable books’, as Guy Burak calls them here (15). Under the auspices of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, a working group – Learned Practices of Scholarly Texts – was set up to investigate these activities in a global context. Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices represents the first fruits of that group’s labour.

             The cover of the collection shows a piece of Chinese pottery, recovered from a tomb in the Hunan province where it was placed during the Western Jin Dynasty at the turn of the fourth century. The statuette depicts two kneeling clerks checking the accuracy of a manuscript. They are collating. Both are holding books, but one has a pen to make corrections in his. They are talking: this is an oral as well as a scribal activity, and requires two people. But collation, as the editors point out, can also be a solitary practice. In the Western tradition, we likely think of ‘the premodern scholar with two manuscripts on his desk, […] looking alternately at the one and then at the other’ (1). It is the contention of Grafton and Most’s collection, then, that the same suite of scholarly practices, with minor variations, can be found across millennia and among disparate cultures with little or no scholarly intercourse with each other.

            One of the standout chapters is Kaster’s which considers the temptation, when faced with a corrupted text, to discreetly ‘correct’ it, inserting one’s hypothetical repairs and not preserving the supposedly ‘bad’ parts of the original. Kaster gives an account of a radically interventionist twelfth-century copyist of Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, someone whose distrust of, and disregard for, the source manuscript he is working from is by turns brilliant and willful. We are able to identify these interventions because earlier versions of the same text have survived, but Kaster offers a warning:

First: where would we be if an earlier reader had wrought the same kinds of changes – often very intelligent and learned, yet far more often entirely irresponsible from a modern point of view – and thereby shaped, not a third-generation descendant of the archetype, but the archetype itself? Second: how do we know that one did not? (130)

That gap between the irrecoverable authorial text and our earliest witness will always remain obscure.

            Ronnie Vollandt’s chapter pictures a scene not unlike the one depicted in the Chinese sculpture, yet a thousand years later and half the world away. It describes a piece of cross-cultural collation from thirteenth-century Cairo, where a Coptic scholar and his Jewish collaborator compare their respective copies of the same work. At a time when ‘the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Coptic alike, had become no more than a scholastic medium that had to be acquired through instruction even by the learned elite’ (183), both communities were accustomed to using an Arabic translation of the Pentateuch – the Tafsīr – prepared some three hundred years earlier. But the text was originally produced (in Arabic) with Hebrew letters before being transliterated to Arabic script. Vollandt’s engaging essay focuses on a Coptic attempt to identify corruptions that centuries of divergent textual traditions might have introduced.

            Ineke Sluiter considers the justifications made for the act of commentary. Commentary, Sluiter wryly points out, is a somewhat paradoxical practice, since canonical texts ‘command a positive a priori attitude in their readers, a presumption that the text will be important, truthful and good. However, the very act of writing a commentary or engaging in other textual practices implicitly acknowledges that the text is not clear, or it would not be in need of exegetical effort’ (34). Working with a corpus of Western classical exegetes, she presents a typology of textual obscurity – intentional vs unintentional; ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ – as commentators defend their base texts for needing commentary in the first place.

            Two memorable chapters deal with extracting. In András Németh’s essay it is the vast tenth-century Byzantine history, Excerpta Constantiniana, composed by cutting up pre-existing historical narratives and regrouping the pieces by topic under a series of headings that reflected the emperor’s concerns: ‘On Conspiracies Against Rulers’, ‘On Imperial Inaugurations’, ‘On Leading of the Army’, ‘On Transformation of Defeat into Victory’. Meanwhile, Grafton and Joanna Weinberg focus on the doggedly one-eyed notetaking of the scholar of Hebrew Johann Buxtorf (1564-1629), whose Jüden Schul was published in 1603. Buxtorf’s mastery of Jewish learning – as the authors put it, ‘no-one did more to lay out the contents of this canon, or to make them accessible to Christians’ (275) – was matched only by his relentless anti-Semitism. By comparing his notebooks and his published output, Grafton and Weinberg show how Buxtorf would decontextualize quotations to make them anti-Christian, and how he would transcribe but then omit to publish folktales that had a tolerant or conciliatory message.

            There are further chapters on collation and commentary in the Neo-Confucian tradition in twelfth-century China; on cataloguing in the European national libraries of the late sixteenth century; on the emergence of mathematical diagrams in the texts of classical geometry; and on policing the limits of interpretation in the Vedānta tradition in sixteenth century India (a controversy that produces some wonderfully titled polemics: Mashing the Face of Madhva’s Method; Slapping Appayya’s Cheeks). Canonical Texts and Scholarly Practices is comparative in the sense that the collection ranges across Western classical literature, the Rigveda of the Indian subcontinent and the Confuscian canon in China. But it ranges too across the spectrum of scholarly textual practices. So when Paolo Visigalli opens his chapter with the assertion that ‘scholars working on the Rigveda […] take for granted what philologists working on other ancient texts generally can only dream of: the reassurance of textual certainty’ (78), we may anticipate a useful contrast between this perfect transmission and the unreliable copying practices outlined in Kaster’s chapter. But Visigalli moves in a different direction – the chapter is more about hermeneutics than transmission – so we don’t get to draw this comparison. The fault is not with Visigalli’s essay, which, in itself, is detailed and coherent. The problem, rather, is that the collection ranges in two directions, both geographically and across a variety of textual practices. While full of strong and fascinating chapters, as a collection it is either not long enough or not focused enough to be more than fleetingly comparative. Instead, it is a starting point, a work that only begins to fill in the map of the new field it proposes: the global history of scribal practices.