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The confluence of readings from more than one exemplar is known as contamination. This has very frequently happened to texts both in antiquity and in the middle ages. Already the philological editions from the time of the first editions of Homer in Alexandria were based on the principle of comparing different manuscripts with one another in order to obtain a text that was as accurate as possible. For classical texts, the best we can hope for is generally to get an idea of what such an edition in late antiquity was like.

The term contamination derives from the Latin verb contaminare, which means ‘to defile with filth, pollute, spoil, corrupt’, which implies that the phenomenon is something very negative. Indeed Paul Maas claims that "Gegen die Kontamination ist kein Kraut gewachsen" (Maas 1960, 30: "there is no remedy against contamination", literally "there is no herb against contamination"). This is so because this practice complicates the work of text editors since it makes it more difficult to get a clear picture of how the various manuscripts in a tradition are related to each other. This in turn makes it more difficult to get a clear picture of what the archetype was like. For philologists working in the Lachmannian tradition, contamination has therefore been a very negative phenomenon.

Following the more descriptive terminology introduced by Giorgio Pasquali (1952), a text tradition can be seen as vertical or horizontal. The former type is non-contaminated and easily applicable to a Lachmannian analysis, while the latter is contaminated and thus much more difficult to analyse from a stemmatological point of view.

In his edition of Lucretius, Karl Lachmann believed that he was dealing with a tradition relatively free from contamination. For this he has been criticised by (among others) the latest editor of that text, Enrico Flores, who thinks that Lachmann underestimated the degree of contamination in the transmission of Lucretius (and in ancient texts generally). This is the case also in several mediaeval text traditions. When Lachmann edited mediaeval German texts he applied the same principles to those texts that he had applied to classical texts. His colleagues and successors in the 19th century recognised through stemmatological research the greater importance of contamination in mediaeval German texts. The research on the relationship between the most significant Middle High German manuscripts (Liederhandschriften, song books) has shown that there have been, without doubt, common sources which the writers of different codices transcribed.

Cf. extra-stemmatic contamination, successive contamination, and simultaneous contamination.


– Flores, Enrico, ed. 2002. Titus Lucretius Carus: De rerum natura. Edizione critica con introduzione e versione, vol. 1 (Libri I–III). Napoli: Bibliopolis. || See p. 24.
– Maas, Paul. 1960. Textkritik. 4th ed. Leipzig: Teubner. – First ed. 1927. 
– Pasquali, Giorgio, 1952. Storia della tradizione e critica del testo. 2nd ed. Firenze: Le Monnier. || See pp. 146–147, 177 f., 183.
– Reynolds, L. D., and Nigel G. Wilson. 1974. Scribes and Scholars. A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. || See pp. 54, 193, 212–213, 247.
– Segre, Cesare. 1961. “Appunti sul problema della contaminazione nei testi in prosa.” In Studi e problemi di critica testuale. Convegno di Studi di Filologia italiana nel Centenario della Commissione per i Testi di Lingua (7–9 Aprile 1960), 63–67. Bologna: Commissione per i Testi di Lingua.
– West, Martin L. 1973. Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique Applicable to Greek and Latin Texts. Stuttgart: Teubner. || See pp. 12–13, 35–37.

In other languages

DE: Kontamination
FR: contamination
IT: contaminazione


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