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The editor encountering a tradition of the kind described must begin by finding solutions to two pressing problems of technique. In the first place, although the logic of textual analysis, as presented in handy form in Greg's The Calculus of Variants,[12] is crystal clear, the task of applying that logic to a manuscript tradition of any complexity, and containing even a moderate number of irregular agreements, can involve a daunting amount of calculation and record-keeping. Dearing, Froger and others have devised computer-based methods for performing the purely mechanical part of the task—though the problem still remains of ensuring that the data to be analysed is put into machine-readable form without distortion.[13] The second problem is that, as we have just seen, the variant readings which are the raw materials of logical analysis will not themselves necessarily progress through the tradition in logical ways. An error which would otherwise have been characteristic of a particular branch of the tradition might be corrected or (less fatally) miscorrected by a scribe. The same variant may arise independently in two different parts of the tradition. Readings characteristic of one branch may be imported into another as the result of memorial contamination or, in extreme cases, of an editing process in which readings from exemplars representing two or more separate lines of descent are combined eclectically into a single "conflated" text. Any of these happenings is likely to lead to an incorrect judgement about the place of manuscripts within the tradition as a whole or the number of intermediaries intervening between one manuscript and another. Seeing that a significant percentage of anomalous agreements seems to be present in every "real life" textual situation, the editor must be prepared to find this the most testing and frustrating stage of his labours.


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Whereas problems of scale and volume can be dealt with satisfactorily by the computer, it has yet to be shown conclusively (which is to say empirically) that purely quantitative methods can deal with the problem of irregular agreement.[14] Scholars faced with large and intractable textual traditions have naturally wished to devise methods by which vast bodies of data could be presented simply as a list of groupings of sigla and the task of reconciling these with each other and ascertaining the status of any anomalies performed entirely by a computer program. An algorithm described by Dearing in his Principles and Practice of Textual Analysis is the most elaborate attempt of this kind to date to appear in print, though others are known to have been attempted privately. While it is easy to scoff at such ambitions as a twentieth-century counterpart of squaring the circle (and there are certainly enormous temptations to recursive and tautological reasoning) the fact remains that it is only by such means that any hopes can be entertained of reaching a solution to the textual histories of the New Testament, the major church fathers, and such widely copied poets as Dante, Virgil and Chaucer. The drawback of such enterprises, however, is that the editor has to work with one arm tied behind his back. Large-scale computer-based data sorts allow no opportunity for the detailed ranking and precoding of the data. Moreover, once a variation has been reduced to a string of symbols divided by group delimiters it has to be regarded as possessing exactly the same evidential value as any other variation with the result that cases of irregular agreement must be reconciled by quantitative not qualitative means. Quantitative means should not be sneered at simply because they are quantitative. The powerful software packages used by social scientists for the statistical analysis of questionnaire and interview data have a considerable, and so far largely untested, value for textual scholars. But they cannot give better than a statistically plausible answer to the central questions—what is the location of the ancestor and how are the other texts derived from it—and there are many situations in which this will be a disastrously wrong answer.

Older approaches to textual criticism, partly from necessity but partly also from intellectual preference, took a view that was exactly the other way round. Accepting that variations differ greatly in their reliability as evidence for the family relationships of sources, they exercised


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editorial judgement to select those variations most likely to indicate the true state of affairs, rejected the others, and constructed their stemmas on the basis of what they learned from the favoured few.[15] It is true that the method was sometimes grossly abused by lazy or careless scholars, but there is still much to be said for it providing two conditions are met. The first of these is that adequate, reasoned and consistent criteria for selection are employed. The second is that decisions made on the basis of a selection of the evidence are found to hold good in a general way when referred back to the whole body of data, or at least to a random sample of it. It is my aim in what follows to outline one form in which such a method can be applied and to suggest that at the present stage of our experience it still offers many advantages over purely quantitative methods for dealing with problems of irregular agreement in moderately contaminated traditions.

It will be necessary before proceeding to present a more detailed summary of the circumstances under which variation may arise during the copying of texts. Least under the control of the scribe is physical damage to the exemplar that removes words or makes them illegible. Variation may also arise from inadequacies in the script of the exemplar by which one word may be read as another or provoke a desperate emendation. The extent to which this takes place will be influenced by the scribe's ability as a decipherer of difficult hands and, perhaps more vitally, by his preparedness to devote time and care to the analysis of letter forms. A third class of changes may be described as misreadings due to incorrect perception on the part of the scribe or a failure to proofread the transcript against the exemplar. This would include eyeskips between two occurrences of a word, dittography, reversals of order, and errors arising from incorrect anticipation—all these categories of error having been carefully anatomised by classical scholars.[16] Of a slightly different nature are substitutions, whether voluntary or involuntary, of the scribe's habits of grammar and expression for those of the original.[17] These would not always be seen by the scribe as comprising errors:


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in some cases they might even be regarded as part of his professional duty. Next come what can be described as editing activities: the emendation of real or imagined errors, the incorporation of readings from other, supposedly better sources, and the replacement of the unfamiliar by the familiar, even if the unfamiliar is perfectly satisfactory—for textual transmission has its own perverse kind of Gresham's Law by which the majority reading will inexorably extend its empire simply by possessing the "rightness" of familiarity. Scribal "improvement" of the original is another matter still—this may have an aesthetic justification or a moral one and covers the suppression or alteration of readings which to the best of the scribe's knowledge were intended by the author, as well as outright interpolation.

Bearing these things in mind, let us consider the position of an editor faced with a tradition containing seven manuscripts, cited under the sigla A to G, who encounters a variation in the form ABDE:CFG, or as it would be written in Greg's notation—Σ:CFG. These two groups should ideally represent (1) an independent and self-contained subfamily within the overall tradition, having its own exclusive common ancestor, and (2) a residual body of texts descended without variation from the archetype—which is which need not for the moment concern us. This ancestor of the sub-family, in turn, may either be one of the manuscripts listed or a lost intermediary (further patterns of variation would need to be consulted in order to determine this). And yet the assumption that the two groups of sigla are genetically significant is not one that the editor is able to make on the basis of a single instance, or even, in some cases, on the basis of a repeated occurrence of the same variation. Before he can judge the value of the variation and the kind of weight that can be placed on it as evidence, he will need to consider two further questions: whether each of the groups indicated is likely to be a true group in genealogical terms and whether it is likely to be a whole group.[18] It will be self-evident that such a question can not be answered from a consideration of symbols alone: it requires a close consideration of the actual variant in its context of meaning, supplemented by a sound understanding of the habits of scribes.

The idea of a "whole" group is necessary to allow for the fact that some variants are inherently less stable than others. Restricting ourselves


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for the moment to what Greg called type-2 variations, involving two groups of texts only, each of which contains at least two members, let us consider the situation of a scribe encountering some glaringly obvious mistake in grammar or metre in his exemplar. While it is a sad fact of life that scribes will often apply superb calligraphical skills to the transcription of arrant nonsense, such a reading would be at constant risk of being altered into something more plausible. Assuming that, in the present case, our scribe succeeded in restoring the reading of the original, his transcript, and those of its descendants which managed to transmit the reading without any further alteration, would, as far as this particular variation was concerned, appear to be prior rather than posterior to their ancestor containing the error. At the same time, the sources that preserved the error would cease to indicate the full membership of the body of manuscripts descended from that ancestor —in other words they would no longer indicate a whole group. The same kind of risk is run by any unique or minority reading—however plausible—occupying a prominent position in a much-copied poem. Here our Gresham's Law would apply again—and a scribe who had encountered the more widely represented reading might substitute it for the alternative simply because, being familiar, it seemed "better."

In discussing the related notion of a "true group" it is necessary to remind ourselves again that our concern for the moment is only with individual variants considered in isolation. Whether or not any given agreement, say CFG, indicates a whole group, that group will be "true" as long as each of its members genuinely belongs to the same sub-family as defined by succession of copying from the source in which the variant originated or from the archetype. However, in cases where an identical variant was introduced spontaneously and independently by scribes working from different exemplars or had arisen from contamination, the receiver group would be a false one in that one of its members was not a descendant of the text in which the variant originated. In this last case the variation would be a false group that contained a whole group though it is easily possible to imagine circumstances that would lead to the genesis of groups that were false without containing a whole group.

A third distinction that needs to be made is that between variants that are enabled by their nature to extend beyond their genealogical bounds and those which are not enabled. If a scribe should feel dissatisfaction with a reading in his exemplar and consult either another manuscript or his memory for an alternative, he will obviously be ready to accept any good, or at least plausible, alternative he might encounter. On the other hand, if the alternative was itself of a dubious nature,


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there would be little point in making a substitution.[19] Moreover, if he knows of no alternative, but attempts a conjectural emendation, his guess is much more likely to coincide with an alternative good reading than an alternative bad one (remembering that we are not at present considering variations with more than one alternative). Plausible readings must therefore be regarded as potentially mobile while bad readings will normally remain stationary. Familiarity may have a similar effect. As has already been indicated, the scribe will tend to regard the variant with which he is personally familiar as the "right" one, and, statistically speaking, this is more likely to be the variant that is better represented among the surviving sources.[20] If the variant concerned was both familiar and obviously more plausible than that with which the scribe was confronted in his exemplar, the pressure to make the substitution would be almost overwhelming, even in cases when it was the less plausible minority reading, as lectio difficilior, which was authorial or offered the best evidence for the authorial intention. If both variants were equally plausible, and there was in consequence no incentive for the scribe encountering either one separately to search for an alternative in a second source, the less common reading would only be likely to supplant the more common if it happened fortuitously to be that with which the scribe was already familiar. A consequence of these distinctions is that the agreement in an obviously wrong, and therefore "stationary," variant of a group of manuscripts when the alternative is obviously better is a very powerful argument—perhaps the most powerful of all—for them forming a true group. It would be unlikely, however, for them to form a whole group, both because of the existence of a better alternative and because a scribe unaware of the alternative might still arrive at it through conjectural emendation.[21] The importance of these considerations for the editor is that they suggest ways in which certain kinds of variation, or even certain kinds of variants taken in isolation, might be regarded as more likely or less likely to produce reliable evidence about the trueness or wholeness of groups.


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The following list offers a ranking of classes of variant according to the likelihood of their providing reliable evidence of "bibliographical" descent. It must be understood that some of the assumptions made rest on no firmer foundation than common sense, and that common sense is sometimes contradicted by what emerges from the patient analysis of large bodies of empirical data. It is to be hoped therefore that the validity of these assumptions can be tested for each of the major historical manuscript traditions by a statistical study of the causes of variation in situations where it is still possible to compare a copy with its exemplar, and equally that the activity of transcription can be studied under laboratory conditions using the methodology of present-day experimental psychology. A further limitation is that it assumes that scribes, whether characterised as "alert" or "careless," will behave in a reasonably consistent way and come to reasonably rational conclusions about the problems posed by their exemplars, an assumption which is hard to reconcile with the many peculiar situations encountered in the sources. Nonetheless, the criteria listed are offered as the guides which in the present state of our knowledge, and on the basis of my own experience as an editor of seventeenth-century texts, seem most likely to prove fruitful. As earlier, only Greg's type-2 variations are admitted for formal consideration though the method obviously has implications for the evaluation both of type-1 variations and of complex variations (Dearing's types 3 and 4).[22]

The basic distinctions that require to be made are as follows:

(1) whether a reading encountered by a scribe in his exemplar would appear to him to be plausible (P), suspicious (S) or an obvious error (E)

(2) whether, in the event of a scribe having knowledge of the alternative, a variant would be likely to be regarded as good by comparison (G), indifferent (I), or obviously inferior, i.e. bad (B)

(3) whether a variant can be described as obtrusive (O), in the sense of being prominent and likely to draw attention to itself, or unobtrusive (U)

(4) whether a variant might be considered vulnerable to reversal or further alteration under the influence of scribal linguistic and spelling preferences or palaeographical factors (V).


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Using this terminology, we can describe the following classes of variant and/or variation, each possessing a different degree of trustworthiness as an indicator of genetic relationships.


A clear substantive variant which is plausible in its context and to all appearances could have been intended by the author, which is indifferent by comparison with the alternative reading, yet which is not obtrusive enough to encourage memorial contamination from the alternative in cases where that was better represented and therefore more familiar. A variant of this kind is likely to indicate both a whole group and a true group.


A clear plausible substantive variant not noticeably better than the alternative, but one that is obtrusive enough in the poem to have run a definite risk of memorial replacement. Criteria of obtrusiveness would need to be derived afresh for every new work or tradition studied. In a religious text, for instance, it might be the theologically charged word that required to be so defined whereas in verse the position of the word in the stanza might be relevant.[23] Consideration would also have to be given to the likelihood of the scribe having encountered the work being copied on a previous occasion or of having access to a second source: with the Rochester manuscripts, I believe that possibility to have been quite a high one, especially where the professional writers of the large miscellanies were concerned. Variants of this kind are still likely to indicate both a true and a whole group, but not so reliably as those of the previous class. If the variant is relatively infrequent by comparison with the alternative, and there is no reason for believing that this was not the case in the tradition as a whole (including non-surviving as well as surviving sources), the likelihood of its representing a whole group would be correspondingly diminished but the likelihood of its representing a true group correspondingly enhanced.


A clear plausible substantive variant but clearly better than the alternative. Readings so classified—and especially the obtrusive subclass—would be likely to travel into texts belonging genealogically to


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the alternative group in cases where the scribe was aware of both alternatives. In such instances, the texts containing the good reading would constitute a false group which, however, contained a whole group, since the bad reading would not, under normal circumstances, ever be substituted for the good one.


Situations where the variant reading is suspicious but not an obvious error. A careless scribe would simply copy the reading, but an alert one might be tempted to emend or to consult another source. Such variants would be quite likely to define a true group, as they would be unlikely to travel to other branches of the tradition, but could not be relied on to define a whole group, especially when the alternative was obviously better.


Glaring and obvious errors that only a careless or desperate scribe would be prepared to let pass and that would never be called on to repair a suspect reading in another text. Where there is no danger of independent error, such variants would probably be the most reliable of all as indicators of a true group but would have little reliability as indicators of a whole group.[24]


A variant which, while still characterisable as substantive, would be vulnerable to change either as the result of an individual copyist's linguistic or spelling preferences or for palaeographical reasons. Variants in the first category would be likely to lie behind many forms of purely dialectical variation, many variations in grammatical function words, most variations in which alterations to meaning are brought about by variations in punctuation or small changes to spelling, and most variations in the wording of material that might be regarded as ancillary to the text proper such as titles, inscriptions and stage directions. The second category would include all variations involving words such as "the," "that," "which," and "when," which were frequently written as contractions, and most variations between singular and plural forms, many of which appear to arise from the misreading


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of final "s" as a decorative flourish or of a decorative flourish as final "s." (This and other points of ambiguity might well be particularly critical in the handwriting of particular scribes.) The problem with such readings is not simply that they are highly prone to further variation but that they are, more specifically, highly prone to reversal—often without any conscious intention on the part of the copyists. The vulnerability would therefore apply to both alternatives in the variation. Variations of this kind are the least likely to indicate either a true group or a whole group. On the other hand, if one has been able to establish a stemma on the basis of more reliable classes of variants, one would expect the V variations to show a predominant conformity to the genetic patterns.[25]

Accidental variants, i.e. those which are purely matters of spelling or punctuation, are so unpredictable in the pre-1800 period as to have little value as evidence for the descent of texts. Editors, as a rule, do not even bother to record them. It should not be overlooked, however, that variant spellings of proper names may sometimes be of value (a repeated glaring error in the spelling of a common name could be admissable as evidence of the constitution of a true group) and that a conformity in the distribution of variant spellings of the same words throughout a manuscript can provide persuasive evidence of relationship and is, indeed, one of the few reliable methods by which we can trace the descent of substantively invariant readings within a tradition and thus distinguish genealogical from purely textual affinities.[26]