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Textual criticism is a field of textual scholarship. In most cases, textual criticism aims at producing a critical edition of a text. This is done by comparing all relevant versions of the text and thus identifying and removing the “errors” – or alterations and modifications – that have changed the contents of the text during its transmission process. Hence, the aim of a textual critic is usually to reconstruct the original contents of the text. This is also called constitutio textus.

The mechanics of textual criticism was known and applied already in the antiquity, but its principles were formalised as a scholarly set of rules only in the 19th and 20th centuries, mainly by German scholars Friedrich Wolf (1759-1824), Immanuel Bekker (1785-1871), Karl Lachmann (1793-1851), and especially Paul Maas (1880-1964) in his influential book Textkritik (1927). According to the latter, the process of textual criticism contains three stages: recensio, examinatio, and emendatio. In practice, all available material is examined, after which the most trustworthy evidence is used to eliminate the changes to the original. This process allows a scholar to reconstruct as original a state of the text as possible. The fruits of such study are normally given as a critical edition of the text, faithfully explaining and justifying the scholarly decisions of the editor. In most cases, a stemma is used as a tool for describing the relationships between the witnesses of the text.

The genealogical method encapsulated in Maas’s principles has been faced with fierce criticism since the early 20th century, e.g. by Joseph Bédier (1864–1938), A. E. Housman (1859–1936), and Henri Quentin (1872–1935). Still, even the most recent computational methods of stemmatology share the basic principles of textual criticism and base their algorithms on the similarities and differences of the textual witnesses.

Textual criticism is sometimes called “lower criticism” to make a contrast to “higher criticism” that aims to establish the authorship, date and place of the original text – much based on the findings of textual criticism.

For fuller discussion of different approaches to editions, see editions, types of.


– Bein, Thomas. 2008. Textkritik: Eine Einführung in Grundlagen germanistisch-mediävistischer Editionswissenschaft: Lehrbuch mit Übungsteil. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
– Greetham, David C. 1999. Theories of the Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Greg, Walter Wilson. 1950. “The Rationale of Copy-Text.” Studies in Bibliography 3: 19–36.
– Habib, Rafey. 2005. A history of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
– Maas, Paul. 1960. Textkritik. 4th ed. Leipzig: Teubner. – 1st ed. 1927.
– McGann, Jerome J. 1992. A critique of Modern Textual Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
– Pasquali, Giorgio. 1952. Storia della tradizione e critica del testo. 2nd ed. Firenze: Le Monnier. – 1st ed., Firenze: Le Monnier, 1934.
– Pöhlmann, Egert. 1994–2003. Einführung in die Überlieferungsgeschichte und in die Textkritik der antiken Literatur. Vol. 1: Antike (1994), Vol. 2: Mittelalter und Neuzeit (2003). Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
– Tanselle, G. Thomas. 1992. A Rationale of Textual Criticism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
– Tanselle, G. Thomas, and  David C. Greetham, eds. 1995. Scholarly Editing: A Guide to Research. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.
– West, Martin L. 1973. Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique Applicable to Greek and Latin Texts. Stuttgart: Teubner.

In other languages

DE: Textkritik
FR: critique textuelle
IT: critica testuale


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