bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

On Bad Copying

Posted in Manuscripts, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 25 September, 2011

I am briefly once again in Rome, thanks to a grant from the Bodleian as part of a partnership with the Vatican Library. So, I am spending my days in the marble-floored Sala manoscritti of the Biblioteca Apostolica, with the late-summer sun shining onto the roof-top cortile to my left. And sitting in that room, consulting codices made in this same city five hundred and fifty years ago, a nagging question that has disturbed my mind before, only to be put to one side, now returns, all the more insistent and demanding of attention. It is this: how come so many of these manuscripts can be elegantly written on fine quality parchment, with ostentatiously wide borders empty except for tasteful illumination, and often in an appropriately expensive binding – how come these books that so look the part can be, in truth, evidence for what can only be called sloppy copying?

I will name (but not with the intent to shame) a particular scribe, whose products I have recently been studying: step forward Johannes Caldarifex, as he sometimes signs himself, a Latinisation of the name he was born with, Johann Kessler. A German and a cleric, he spent a large part of his career here in Rome, for some of it at least in the household of Antonio de la Cerda, Spanish cardinal and dedicatee of works by both Rinucius Aretinus and the future Pius II (Cerda himself is worthy of much more attention than he deserves). In that household, Johannes acted as a scribe, specialising in large-size codices, on thinnish, smooth parchment which he ruled with a dry point, often so heavily that it nearly tears the surface. He produced copies of recent publications like George of Trebizond’s translations of Aristotle and of Eusebius, as well as traditional texts in fashion among humanists, like Lactantius or Cicero’s Familiar Letters. This last is the earliest dated manuscript we have by Johannes, to 1448, and it shows him already master of humanist littera antiqua bookhand; there is – aside from changes of detail – a notable consistency in his script. In some of the codices, he makes the text accessible by providing running headers and foliation which inform the contents lists he compiles and places at the start of the volume. He also, in some cases, shows signs of personal interest in the texts he is transcribing, adding nota monograms and other annotations in, for instance, his copies of Josephus and of Jerome. These are all imposing, highly presentable volumes but – let us whisper it – textually accurate they were not. We have reason to suspect a scribe’s Latin when he ends a work with a colophon that reads ‘Qui scripsit scripta sua manu sit benedicta’, suggesting (if it were to make any sense at all) that the scribe had changed sex. More importantly, however, the body of the work is characterised by being strewn with errors. For instance, in the codex he constructed of Cicero’s Letters – a volume that opens with an impressive full border in the bianchi girari style, inhabited by two disconcertingly out-size birds – the first owner, the bishop of Brescia, Pietro del Monte, clearly considered the text deficient for he felt the need to correct obvious mistakes with his own suppositions of what the reading should be.

Johannes’ manuscripts, it must be said, are not an egregious and atypical case of bad copying. We can not simply write it off as the work of a barbarian northerner corrupting Renaissance culture: a list of Italian scribes who were equally susceptible to making mistakes would be extensive. Let me give another example from the collection of Cardinal de la Cerda. A humanist scribe, who does not identify themselves, provided him with Leonardo Bruni’s recent translation of Aristotle’s Politics; the copyist – who writes the titles in gold, on one occasion, stating the book is the work of ‘Aristelis’ – so mangled the text, however, that an early user went to the lengths of comparing it with another copy and adding corrections to nearly every page. In the Spanish cardinal’s library, poor quality texts in high-grade manuscripts were the norm, not the exception. And we should wonder how unusual his library was.

We might, of course, wonder why we should wonder at this: after all, we know that in a manuscript culture each transcription was liable to introduce error and take the text further from its pristine state. Yet, there is something particularly counter-intuitive about this tendency within codices that conspicuously display their commitment to humanism, that culture of the book which we now describe as the first, heroic phase in the history of philology. What is more, the script of humanism was itself the forerunner of the Roman typeface and so, for us, may resonate with the perceived aspirations of the enterprise of the text in print. Those aspirations – the commitment to accuracy manifested in the stability of the printed page – are undoubtedly themselves a mythology and, for many generations, Gutenberg’s technology provided imperfect texts which held out the prospect of only being perfected by the intervention of you, the reader, yourself. This is a recognition which has become all the more possible as we enter into a second information technology revolution where the text becomes even less stable and the mistaken or the downright inaccurate has its place in the democracy of the internet. However that may be, it is certainly the case that our understanding of early print culture has developed to bring it closer to the dynamics of the world it only gradually replaced. If, then, we have to accept error as a recidivist reality, a sort of ghost in the non-mechanised machine, we can also recognise that tactics intended to provide confidence in textual quality often provide illusory reassurance. And so it must have been with the humanist aesthetic for the book: the emphasis on the uncluttered page drawing attention to the clearly-written words – all this was little more than a false promise to the reader who came to realise that the transcription they had before them was untrustworthy. Did they see this as a paradox, or as an inescapable fact that had to be tolerated? What strategies could they master to negotiate a culture of inaccuracy?

It is certainly the case that mistakes were tolerated. Error on the level perpetrated by Johannes Caldarifex seems certainly not to have placed a break on his career: we see him at work for well over a decade. Nor can we explain his success simply by noting that he was employed by one cardinal who may have shown commendable Christian charity towards his servant’s mistakes, for Johannes certainly made works for other leading clergymen as well – aside from Pietro del Monte’s collection, there were manuscripts by this scribe to be found in the libraries of Filippo Calandrini, half-brother to Nicholas V, who made him a cardinal, and of Bessarion, the papabile and learned Greek. Certainly, we know that some owners did not care what was written on the line as long as the page itself looked splendid; but readers – humanist readers – who were concerned to be able to approach the text clearly learnt to live with imperfections. We might wonder what level of error was considered acceptable. We might even ask ourselves whether they, perhaps, quietly relished a corrupt text which tested their ingenuity for correction.

Yet, my interest is more with the scribe himself, who has made a conscious choice to adopt the humanist agenda. Was he unaware of its intended implications for the text? Assuming that he had the understanding, did he feel shamed if confronted with evidence of his own mistakes? More basically, how could he rationalise to himself the reality of error? Perhaps the apparent insouciance of scribes was not simply unthinking, but suggests a mindset, a way of seeing their work that recognises their innate and human inability to produce the perfect text. Perhaps they comforted themselves with thinking that their efforts were not the text itself, but a witness to the text. We might call to mind the Islamic tradition in which the divine wisdom which is the Qu’ran is separate from its physical manifestation, the mushaf. Or we might consider more apposite the Platonic concept of the Form. Or we might think of the x or the y of the philologist’s stemma – the assumed prototype to which the editor attempts to return by reconstruction from the extant copies. Faced with such a presentation of the evidence of the descent of a text, our scribe might with a weary smile acknowledge that what they were producing would sit – could only ever sit – far from the stemmatic head.

We can take the analogy with a textual stemma further, for that diagrammatic presentation necessarily speaks of a multiple of witnesses to a text. Our scribe, similarly, might have been concious that there was not the copy of a work, but only one manifestation among several: that there was, in other words, a community of copies, a republic of literal letters – a republic, they would admit, that was certainly a flawed state, a fallen state. That perception or outlook might not be just a phlegmatic philosophical consideration; in some particular situations, it would be an immediate practical reality. Someone like Johannes Caldarifex – who was not the only copyist in de la Cerda’s household, let alone in the few square miles beyond his palace – would have been well aware that he was one of a plurality of scribes at work not very distant from each other. In quattrocento Rome, like Florence several copyists could each independently make their living by their trade in providing attractive, if inaccurate, manuscripts. This was a context, then, in which the scribe of literary texts was becoming a professional and perhaps this is the central paradox: the process of professionalisation could also be a victory for imperfection.


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