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This entry gives an overview of the history of editing from the Alexandrian period until early modern time, with a focus on classical texts in Greek and Latin. It does not cover the edition of modern texts, and like the other contributions in this lexicon, it does not cover editions in other philological traditions. For a typological perspective, see editions, types of.

The philological practice of comparing several manuscripts in order to reconstruct a text was born in the great library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BC (cf. eclectic editions in editions, types of). Important editions of pre-classical Greek poets, e.g. Homer, were created there. The Alexandrians also introduced various signs in order to draw attention to suspicious or problematic readings and they discussed such problems in commentaries and scholia. The Alexandrian philologists were often able to take into consideration a rather large number of different manuscripts: this was the case when Aristarchus of Samothrace worked on Homer at Alexandria in the 2nd century BC. It is, however, not likely that Aristarchus used all that material for a systematic study of the internal relationship between the manuscripts in a modern sense: he rather seems to have compared a version of the text, which he considered particularly reliable, to other versions and thus produced a text which was free from obvious faults and which then replaced the multitude of earlier versions.

This Alexandrian practices of comparing manuscripts in order to produce a canonical version of a text, of drawing attention to problems in the text with the help of a number of signs, and of writing commentaries and scholia on such matters were introduced in Rome in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. In Rome there was no such public library until Augustan times, but there was an organised book trade already in the first part of the 1st century BC. In such an environment new editions of classical authors were regularly created.

It is probable that such methods were normally used when new editions of classical texts were produced in expensive parchment codices in late antiquity. Sometimes these new editions were sponsored by wealthy private persons (cf. e.g. the new edition of Livy from around 400 AD, which was sponsored by the Symmachi and the Nicomachi). This activity in late antiquity is of fundamental importance for the survival of classical literature, since the literary works which were not edited and re-written on parchment had poor chances of surviving into the middle ages (cf. media transmitting texts).

In the early middle ages literacy decreased considerably – especially on the continent. Reading, writing and copying of books became a matter mainly dealt with in the monasteries. Around 800 there was a revival of the interest in classical literature in both the Latin West and in the Greek East. Classical literary works were now copied and studied.

In the late middle ages and early Renaissance, literacy and learning became more common outside the church and the interest in classical literature increased: as a result there was a further increase in the search for and in the copying of such texts. There was now more contact with the Greek-speaking world and westerners, first Italians and then others, were learning Greek again. There was also an increasing production of new texts in both the classical and in the vernacular languages which were copied and edited.

When the printing technique was introduced in the 15th century, religious texts such as the Bible but also classical literary texts were among the first ones to be printed. The early editions thus created were sometimes based on only one manuscript (cf. documentary editions in editions, types of). Unfortunately, these early editors and printers did not always regard it as necessary to keep the manuscripts that they had used. Important information about the preceding manuscript traditions was therefore often lost. Often, however, there were also attempts to compare different manuscripts with one another and thus establish a better text, but the comparison of the manuscripts was then rather arbitrary and it was based on the probability of the different readings in mostly relatively recent manuscripts (cf. e.g. the edition of the New Testament in Greek by Erasmus of Rotterdam).

Many texts were then reprinted in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries on the basis of such first editions (textus receptus). This practice was challenged by several 17th and 18th century scholars, who thought that editions should be based on the older manuscripts. Thus a new method developed according to which the internal relationship between the text witnesses should be studied and, if possible, an archetype be established. This is the method associated with the name of the German 19th century scholar Karl Lachmann.

Some of the variation found in the manuscripts of ancient and mediaeval texts is due to the fact that sometimes an ancient or mediaeval author published more than one version of his text. We know, for instance, that several classical Greek and Latin texts were revised after publication by their authors or got into circulation before the text had been fully revised. In such cases the various stages of elaboration may be represented by varying readings in the later transmission of the text. Sometimes an edition was made from a text which was not intended for publication in that form by the author. Some of Aristotle’s transmitted work goes back to lecture notes, which seem to have been made by the author himself. The teaching of several mediaeval philosophers is known to us from such annotations made by their students (cf. reportatio in copying of texts).

Both in antiquity and in the middle ages there were various attitudes to the copying of texts. Some texts were treated with much respect for the original wording of the text, but in other cases the copyists felt more free to intervene and introduce changes – this is, for instance, often the case in technical texts of various kinds, but it sometimes also happened to literary texts (cf. copying of texts: attitudes). As a result we can distinguish between closed text traditions, where there was little or no room for such changes, and open traditions, where there is sometimes considerable variation between the different manuscripts containing the same text. In open traditions scholars often distinguish different recensiones (i.e. versions) of the same text.

Sometimes new editions were made because of a change in ideology or perspective. This happened to certain pagan texts, which occur in both a “pagan” and a “Christian” edition (e.g. Epictetus’ Enchiridion). This happened also to the Decem libri historiarum by the 6th century Gallo-Roman bishop and aristocrat Gregory of Tours, which was abbreviated and renamed Historia Francorum a couple of generations after the author’s death: the Gallo-Roman author himself purported to write about the history of the world from a Christian perspective (putting contemporary events in Gaul into the perspective of God’s plan for the human race), but some of his later readers, who were living in a world in which the Gallo-Roman elite had merged with the Frankish one and a new common French national identity had been born, were only interested in the parts of his texts which dealt with the Frankish kings and thus turned his text into a chronicle of the Merovingian kings.

A particular kind of edition is the anthology (anthologia or, in Latin, florilegium). Such an anthology often contains texts written by several different authors or a selection of texts written by the same author. In antiquity important anthologies containing the works of several different poets were thus created (Anthologia Graeca and Anthologia Latina). There were, however, also anthologies produced for school purposes. In the middle ages there were anthologies of elegant letters, which should serve as models for those writing letters. Many mediaeval manuscripts contain collections of extracts from different authors.


– Bayet, Jean, ed. 1961. Tite-Live: Histoire romaine. Livre I. Texte établi par Jean Bayet et traduit par Gaston Baillet. Paris: Les Belles Lettres. || See pp. XCI–C.
– Gastgeber, Christian. 2003. “Die Überlieferung der griechischen Literatur im Mittelalter.” In Egert Pöhlmann, Einführung in die Überlieferungsgeschichte und die Textkritik der Antiken Literatur: Mittelalter und Neuzeit, 1–46. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. || See pp. 28–29.
– Haverling, Gerd V. M. 2008. “On Variation in Syntax and Morphology in Late Latin texts.” In Latin vulgaire – Latin tardif VIII: Actes du VIIIe Colloque International sur le latin vulgaire et tardif, Oxford, 6–9 septembre 2006, edited by Roger Wright, 351–360. Hildesheim: Olms Weidmann.
– Heldmann, Georg. 2003. “Von der Wiederentdeckung der antiken Literatur zu den Anfängen methodischer Textkritik.” In Egert Pöhlmann, Einführung in die Überlieferungsgeschichte und die Textkritik der Antiken Literatur. Mittelalter und Neuzeit, 97–135. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. || See pp. 97–104, 108–130, 131 f.
– Howatson, Margaret C. 1969. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. || See p. 57.
– Klopsch, Paul. 2003. “Die Überlieferung der lateinischen Literatur im Mittelalter.” In Egert Pöhlmann, Einführung in die Überlieferungsgeschichte und die Textkritik der Antiken Literatur. Mittelalter und Neuzeit, 47–95. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. || See pp. 67–70, 78f.
– Pasquali, Giorgio. 1952. Storia della tradizione e critica del testo. 2nd ed. Firenze: Le Monnier. || See pp. 15–21, 146 f., 397–465.
– Pfeiffer, Rudolf. 1968–1976. History of classical scholarship. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
– Pöhlmann, Egert. 1994. Einführung in die Überlieferungsgeschichte und die Textkritik der Antiken Literatur: Altertum. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. || See pp. 27 f., 31–34, 36 f., 46–49, 61 f., 71 f., 75.
– Pöhlmann, Egert. 2003. “Textkritik und Texte im 19. Und 20. Jh.” In Egert Pöhlmann, Einführung in die Überlieferungsgeschichte und die Textkritik der Antiken Literatur: Mittelalter und Neuzeit, 137–182. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. || See pp. 137–143.
– Reynolds, Leighton Durham, 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. 8 ff., 21, 33 f., 35-37, 194.
– Salles, Catherine. 2010. Lire à Rome. Petite Bibliothèque Payot. New ed. Paris: Belles Lettres. – 1st ed., Paris: Belles Lettres, 1992. || See  pp. 158 f., 175 f.
– West, Martin L. 1973. Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique. Stuttgart: Teubner. || See p. 15.


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