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The method of reconstructing the text of a work based on the genealogical kinship of witnesses which was developed in the 19th century is often named after Karl Lachmann, although this scholar did not write any theoretical texts about it. In fact one might rather call this method "the genealogical method". In the latter part of the 19th century the method had found widespread use, and was refined for Romance texts by Gaston Paris who firmly established the idea of common errors ("fautes communes") in the 1870s. His pupil Joseph Bédier revolted against it (Bédier 1928) and advocated a best manuscript approach instead. Finally in 1927, Paul Maas wrote the first manual that tried to summarise the method coherently, almost more geometrico in a very concise and mathematical form. In later editions he addressed Bédier's criticism.

Lachmann saw philological work on texts as "Kritik" (criticism) and "Kunstübung" (exercise in the arts). For him editing a text is ‘critical’ work: it does not only consist of mere copying of witnesses but it is also distinguished by the critical examination of the entire available tradition. Thus witnesses are grouped hierarchically, which leads to the compilation of a stemma codicum based on a consistently applied typology of errors. These procedures should, as Lachmann puts it, "make clear the degree of certainty of the surviving material" ("der Grad der Sicherheit des Überlieferten zur Anschauung gebracht werden", Lachmann 1876, vol. 2, p. 81). In order to distinguish the primary (original) from the secondary reading (error), the textual critic has to be equipped not only with skills of historical linguistics and literature, but also with aesthetic skills that allow him to identify readings closer or more distant to the author whose style he thus has to know well. And in this respect, textual criticism for Lachmann is also an "exercise of the arts" including 'conjectures'. The first aim is thus to reconstruct the text of the archetype.

Lachmann formulates this target as follows (Preface 'Nibelungenlied' edition in Jenaische allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung 1817: 114): "Wir sollen und wollen aus einer hinreichenden Menge von guten Handschriften einen allen diesen zum Grunde liegenden Text darstellen, der entweder der ursprüngliche selbst seyn oder ihm doch sehr nahe kommen muss". (“We should and intend to represent from a sufficient quantity of good manuscripts that text which can account for them all, which needs must be either the original itself or come very close to it".) First, such 'good' manuscripts must be found, copied, and – most important – compared. This comparison should not only determine the quality of the manuscripts, but also their genealogical relationship. The textual documents should be arranged to groups of manuscripts, each of which descend from one hyparchetype. Thus a first step, called recensio, in the direction of the 'original' is done, which Lachmann means to do sine interpretatione (without subjectivity, without interpreting). The result of the recensio is the so-called stemma codicum. The main problem for the editor (and for modern software) is to identify to root in the tree, that is to tell which set of readings is the one from the archetype (or original) and which others are secondary ("errors").

For Lachmann, the next step, the so-called emendatio, is also not merely a subjective act, but an effort of iudicium, the well-founded evaluation of the editor. The archetypal text obtained by this procedure is 'improved' (emended) wherever the editor detects 'errors', i.e. where – according to his iudicium (the reasoned assessment) – the text shows grammatical, stylistic or metrical forms which may not be attributed to the author (and thus the original). Cf. also constitutio textus. Lachmann attempts to obtain the iudicium by careful study of meter, grammar, topical formulas, the frequency of linguistic phenomena etc. These operations are the final step to the 'original'. A verisimilibus progredi ad verum ("to progress from the probable to the true"), that is Lachmann’s depiction of this procedure in his preface to the edition of the New Testament. Correcting errors is certainly one of the most difficult and problematic parts of the text-critical work. Lachmann is aware of this, and although he always wants to return to the "genuine text", he was often careful with emendations and conjectures, at least much more cautious than some of his followers and predecessors. 

In his German editions Lachmann expects that “unwandelbares Hochdeutsch” (fixed High German) and a strictly regulated meter should also belong along with the 'truth', the 'genuine' and the 'primordial'. Both postulates continue to have an effect on the mediaeval German textual criticism till today. Lachmann assumes that the poets of the Middle High German 'Blütezeit' (heyday) (the last quarter of the 12th till end of the first third of 13th century) have spoken a kind of standard language, a non-dialectal language, which had been corrupted over the process of copying by dialectal writers. Even though the idea of an uniform Middle High German literary language is abandoned today – at the most we could talk about transregional idioms – there is still a largely 'normalised' Middle High German in modern usage, especially concerning the spelling, as a concession for the reader. Lachmann's approach undoubtedly often went too far in the case of vernacular texts, which lead eventually to a reaction in the other extreme by Joseph Bédier. But Lachmann's method is still the standard technique to edit many types of texts especially in its further developed forms of Neo-Lachmannian philology.


– Bédier, Joseph. 1928. “La tradition manuscrite du Lai de l’Ombre: Réflexions sur l’art d’éditer les anciens textes.” Romania 54: 161–196, 321–356. – Reprint, Paris: Champion, 1970
– Fiesoli, Giovanni. 2000. La genesi del lachmannismo. Firenze: SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo.
– Lachmann, Karl. 1876. Kleinere Schriften. Vol. 1, Kleinere Schriften zur deutschen Philologie, edited by Karl Müllenhoff. Vol. 2, Kleinere Schriften zur classischen Philologie, edited by Johannes Vahlen. Berlin: Reimer.
– Maas, Paul. 1960. Textkritik. 4th ed. Leipzig: Teubner. – First ed. 1927.
– Timpanaro, Sebastiano. 1963. La genesi del metodo del Lachmann. Firenze: Le Monnier.
– ———. 1981. La genesi del metodo del Lachmann. 2nd ed. Padova: Liviana.
– ———. 2005. The Genesis of Lachmann’s Method. Translated by Glenn W. Most. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. – Translated from Timpanaro 1981.
– Trovato, Paolo. 2014. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lachmann’s Method: A Non-Standard Handbook of Genealogical Textual Criticism in the Age of Post-Structuralism, Cladistics, and Copy-Text. Foreword by Michael D. Reeve. Firenze: edizioni.

In other languages

DE: Lachmanns Methode
FR: méthode de Lachmann
IT: metodo del Lachmann


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