Editing the Instituta Cnuti

The Early English Laws project will in the end produce new editions of well over 100 texts of laws from Æthelberht’s Old English dooms to the first Anglo-French law code, the Leis Willelme and the well-known Latin text of Magna Carta 1215.   Like most editions, almost all of the work will be done invisibly.  All one generally sees in any edition is the final product, supported by a statement about witnesses and method.  This is fine, since what we generally want from an edition is the result.  This result is exactly what I will be publishing on the project’s website when I have completed my work on a peculiar Latin text known as the Instituta Cnuti.

What I would like to do here is somewhat different.  I will describe my own process of editing this early twelfth-century Latin law text step by step.  I am making this process transparent— with all its speculations and false turns along with its insights and conclusions—for a few reasons.  I want to convey something of the pleasure editing produces.  As the classicist (and poet) A. E. Housman wrote in 1921, ‘A textual critic engaged upon his business is not at all like Newton investigating the motions of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting fleas’.  I want to share with you the pleasures of the hunt (the tastiness of the fleas I’ll leave to your imagination). Another reason for these posts is that I want to provide a description of what an editor does, week by week, much in the spirit of J. H. Hexter’s wonderful 1954 essay, ‘The Historian and His Day’.  Here I’ll bring what skills I have in paleography, codicology, medieval Latin, history, and English law to bear on my work with the Instituta.  This will also be a way to convey what is different about doing an edition online–not just the technical differences, but conceptual ones as well, since, unlike what is available in print editions, here many of the key manuscript witnesses will be linked to the text and translation, and commentary space is virtually unlimited.  Last, I am hoping that readers who are trained in the languages and necessary skills will consider participating in future work for the project.  There are already a number of editors and editorial teams at work on some texts, but much more work remains.

My editorial method is not mysterious.  The method I use is what I would consider the standard method used for editing Latin texts from all periods.  It is a method created in the 19th century and refined in the 20th, and is generally referred to as textual criticism  The aim of a textual critic is to reconstruct a text that will be as close to the author’s as possible.  The ‘as possible’ holds within itself one of the many methodological assumptions which I will employ.  What I will actually be reconstructing will be the copy (called an archetype) from which all other copies of my text descend.  This copy may or may not survive, and may or may not be the author’s text.  When a text has a known author—whether John of Salisbury or Bede—the gap between what can and cannot be said about the closeness of the archetype to the author’s text (the original) creates more anxiety on the part of the editor.  Are these, the editor asks, Bede’s own words?  For me, editing an anonymous text, the issue remains but is of less moment.  I may through identification of certain types of errors present in the archetype be able to say that the archetype is probably the author’s text (by and large) or I may have to conclude that it stands at some distance from the original authorial text, and that there is not sufficient justification for emending the text to take me from archetype to author.  The anonymity of my author (or authors) redirects my attention to the many copies of the laws that were produced and used by readers in (mostly) the twelfth century.  The distance between my reconstruction of the archetype and the supposed original diminishes in importance when contemporaries were content with what they had available.

But I get ahead of myself.

What I will be doing over the next year are a series of tasks that are laid out by the method.  First, I have to find all existing copies of the Instituta Cnuti.  This will ensure I have the most evidence possible for understanding the value of my witnesses and for reconstructing the text. Second, I will transcribe all of these witnesses.  The transcriptions will show the relationship of the manuscripts, reveal the eccentricity of some, and provide the basis for the reconstructed text.  Third, I must select my text—which essentially means I have to choose between variant readings in those places where the manuscripts disagree.  This is also the point where I might emend the text in spite of what its witnesses tell me.  Once I have established my text, I conduct my fourth step as an act of quality control.  I read the text and its apparatus against each transcription to ensure that the evidence for what I argue (since the reconstructed text is in itself an argument) is in fact absolutely clear and accurate in my text and apparatus.  The result will be a new critical edition of the Instituta Cnuti.

I will be taking you through each of these steps, one by one, to show a very commonly employed method for editing a Latin text in action.  Editing texts in Old English and Anglo-French, of which there are a great number in this project, are another story entirely!

Bruce O’Brien, chair, Literary Board of the project

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