A Descent into Textual Paranoia

tags: books, Jesuits, classics, History of the Book, Philology

How do we interpret the world around us? How do we make sense of the ever-growing proliferation of texts — in books, on tablets and phones, on Twitter and in tabloids — in a turbulent age?

The first question has always been with us and always will be. The second might seem unique to our time and related to the unprecedented speed with which information circulates today — and its mind-numbing volume. More information is available more quickly than ever before. In many ways, that’s good. But it has also led to paranoia, suspicion, and conspiracy theorizing, from such sources as QAnon, Mark Crispin Miller, and the anti-vaccination community. Those who subscribe to these theories are “doing their own research,” and they are doing it in the context of proliferating information with few gatekeepers.

Something like this has happened before, during an earlier moment when information, skepticism, and conspiracy-thinking collided. I’m thinking of the French Jesuit Jean Hardouin, now largely forgotten. Born in the middle of the 17th century in Brittany, Hardouin was better known as Harduinus, the Latin version of his name. Although Hardouin was French by birth, we can identify him as a citizen of another polity, a borderless one in which citizenship was not recognized by law, but by reputation: the Republic of Letters, whose citizens wrote in Latin, believed in the self-evident importance of Greco-Roman antiquity, and were immersed in an environment of discovery, debate, and mutual interaction.

Hardouin’s specialty was the Latin literature of the ancient world. He was a “philologist,” a term little used today but one with a rich history. Philologists specialize in editing texts. Consider a modern edition of some speeches of Cicero. How did it come into being? That is, how did it go from its original messy handwritten state to the clean version you could pick up inexpensively at a bookstore or online?

Cicero likely dictated it to a scribe, and the scribe wrote on papyrus — the ancient world’s basic writing material, made from the pith of the papyrus plant. “Books,” for the ancients, were made in the form of rolls, which you would need to unroll while reading. Then, in the early Christian era, a new form of the book emerged, the “codex.” It looked like the book as we think of it today: pages, bound together. Papyrus had trouble surviving northern European climates, so during the Middle Ages, when learning moved north and German, French, Irish, and other monks copied and recopied works like Cicero’s, “parchment” became the basic material out of which people made books. This treated animal skin was expensive — a large book might require the skins of hundreds of sheep or goats, so each book represented a significant investment.

Two other momentous changes occurred in the history of the book. First, Europeans began manufacturing paper. Invented in Asia, paper entered Europe during the “high” Middle Ages — the years from roughly 1000 to 1300. Made from macerated rags, paper cost about one-sixth the price of parchment. It was still expensive, but it made books more affordable.

Finally, there was the emergence of printing with movable type in the 1450s, which spread quickly from Germany throughout the rest of Europe, taking especially firm hold early on in Italy. There, joined with the energies of the Italian Renaissance, books were produced at rates unthinkable in the manuscript era.

Cicero’s speeches passed through all those divergent technologies, from rolls, to handwritten codices, to printed books. There was no universally agreed-upon standard version of the text to begin with. So, along the way, people did their best. They tried when copying by hand to be accurate — even as they inevitably fell short, producing slightly different versions of the same text with every new copy. When it came to the era of printing with movable type (especially in its early years, when it was a new industry trying to find its footing), sometimes a printer would print the text from the closest handwritten version available — without comparing copies or editing.

As the centuries went by, these texts amassed ever more complicated “textual traditions.” All the errors, solutions, and suggestions from former editors that each version of every text possessed needed to be disentangled and set right. Sometimes they still do. Picking apart the problems in these textual traditions and editing those texts to make sure they were as accurate as possible became a profession: the profession of the philologist.


Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education