Dr. Matthew Driscoll and the New Philology
by Dr. Matthew Driscoll
Digital Humanities Summer Institute
(This lecture was cosponsored by the Beck Trust)
University of Victoria
June 20, 2007
Article by Leif Nordholm
“Everything But the Smell”—that’s what Matthew Driscoll thinks an edition of a medieval text should aim for. To make sure we didn’t miss the point he made this hope his title, though some might find it rude. But to keep the scholars happy he added a subtitle: “Towards a More Artefactual Digital Philology.”
It’s a problem that editors have wrestled with forever: how close to the manuscript original should an edition be? Do you keep odd letter forms or “normalize” them. Do you try to make sense of the seemingly ungrammatical or supply words that worms have eaten?
The audience, scholars attending the University of Victoria Digital Humanities Summer Institute, might be thought to prefer virtual editions, but Matthew Driscoll, who has the good luck to work with one of the great manuscript collections, would like to keep things physical. Yet he moves with the times. I came to the lecture knowing little about the digital age, text encoding, textual criticism and philology. Luckily, he told us everything we need to know— and he even discussed “the smell”.
He started his career interested in medieval texts, as a philologist—in other words a scholar (literally a lover) of old languages and the texts they preserve. He is still a philologist and not, he admits, a computer scientist. He has, however, modernized. His focus is now the popular literature of eighteenth and nineteenth century Iceland.
Matthew realized that there would be few Old Norse philologists in such a diverse audience. For this lecture, therefore, he focused on editorial theory, and the problems applicable to all editors—for example, how to choose the standard form of a text.
“If you’re dealing with popular Roman writers like Terrence and Juvenal you could have five or six hundred manuscripts, if you’re dealing with the Greek New Testament, you might have five or six thousand,” Matthew explained. Old Icelandic manuscripts seldom number more than a dozen.
Reasons for textual variance include scribal error and physical damage. In vernacular traditions like Icelandic, scribes feel free to rewrite stories, because the tradition is alive.
Matthew defined textual criticism as “the technique of restoring texts as nearly as possible to their original form.” It was developed in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Classical and Biblical Scholars. Philologists restore texts based on evidence of “witnesses”—surviving manuscripts.
One way to compare texts is to use the stemmatic method. This method is generally associated with German philologist Karl Lachmann. The theory is that a manuscript comes from a non-extant witness, or an “archetype”. The archetype should not be confused with the original; it is simply the earliest form of a work. The goal is to arrive at the closest to the original form as possible, through comparison.
Before you dust off your favourite personal manuscripts and begin making comparisons, you need to know one thing: the Lachmannian method hardly ever works.
The reason for this, Matthew explains, is that you must make a few assumptions. The first assumption is that no two scribes will ever independently make they same mistakes, but alas, they do. The next assumption is that scribes always work from a single witness, which they don’t. Finally, you must be sure that the scribes have reproduced the archetype witness exactly, but you can’t.
What is Matthew’s solution? If it is impossible to find the text, then just be honest: present your research on a text. This is fairly recent approach and is known as the “new” or “material” philology.
The idea of the new philology is that instability is an inescapable reality of medieval literature. Rather than trying to find order within an annoyingly muddled tradition, the new philologist celebrates the chaotic.
Matthew points out that there are diverse critiques surrounding the new philology. Some claim there was nothing wrong with the old philology; others claim there is nothing new about the new philology. Matthew tells us that both perspectives are valid. We do not need to replace the old philology, and to argue that the new philology isn’t new is an understatement.
But electronic editions do make certain things possible. Old facsimiles were hopeless expensive, electronic ones are cheap. And they make it easy to see what the surviving manuscript looks like and when an editor has been at work mending things. They bring the text to life and almost transmit the smell. They make new philology possible.