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The term ‘diffraction’ (also ‘multiple innovation’) refers to the substitution of the original [reading], when particularly difficult, infrequent or rare, with several innovative (but trivial) readings or attempts of clarification by the scribes.

The concept of diffraction, connected with the notion of lectio difficilior, was first explored theoretically by Gianfranco Contini in 1955 and further expanded by the same scholar in a speech given in 1967. Contini draws this term from physics, and applies it to the field of textual criticism. He then distinguishes the categories of diffraction 'in praesentia', where the reading that has caused diffraction is preserved in at least one witness, and 'in absentia', where the reading that has caused diffraction is lost. The following is an example of the second category, given by Contini himself (1967) and taken from the tradition of the Old French Vie de saint Alexis (l. 155, L, A, P, P2, and S being the manuscripts that transmit the diffracted readings):

(l. 154: Plainons ensemble le dol de nostre ami)

L         tu de tun seinur, jo·l frai pur mun filz
A         tu pur tun sire e je pur mun chier filz
P         tu por tun seignor, je.l ferai por mun fiz (P2 tu t. seigneur…)
S         l’une son fil et l’autre son ami.

The readings of the extant manuscripts are not admissible either for metrics (L P P2), or morphology (A) or for their meaning in the context (S). It has been argued by Adolf Tobler, in his review of Gaston Paris’ edition of Alexis (1872), that the original, lost reading could be:

tu por tun per (...).

Using Contini’s terminology, one may assume that the rare meaning of per (masculine!) 'spouse' has generated diffraction yielding to the different trivial readings attested in the witnesses: seinur (L) / seignor  (P) 'lord/husband', sire (A) 'lord/husband' [nominative], son fil (S) 'his son'.


– Contini, Gianfranco. 1955. “Ancora sulla canzone ‘S’eo trovasse Pietanza’ ”. Siculorum Gymnasium 8, 122–138.
– ———. 1968. La critica testuale come studio di strutture (1967). In Gianfranco Contini.1986. Breviario di ecdotica, 135–148. Milano: Riccardo Ricciardi.
– Gorni, Guglielmo. 1990. “‘Divinatio’, ‘lectio difficilior’ e diffrazione nella filologia di Contini”. Filologia e critica XV/2–3, 230–258.
– Paris, Gaston, ed. 1872. La Vie de Saint Alexis: Poème du XIe siècle. Paris: Franck.
– Tobler, Adolf. 1872. “Compte rendu de l’édition du Saint Alexis par Gaston Paris”. Göttingen gelehrte Anzeigen 5. Juni 1872, 881–903.

In other languages

DE: Diffraktion
FR: diffraction
IT: diffrazione



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