Textual transmission is the means by which a text -- for example, de rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), a book-length Latin poem of Epicurian philosophy written in the 1st century BC by a man named Lucretius, his only surviving work -- has been passed along -- in Lucretius' case, manuscripts written in the 9th century BC were copied into other manuscripts in the 15th century, and printed editions have been made based on various manuscripts. This is called the direct tradition. In addition, other authors have quoted or described passages from Lucretius poem: this is referred to as the indirect tradition.
In this blog post, I criticized Stephen Greenblatt for including grossly misleading and just plain inaccurate statements about the textual transmission of de rerum natura in his book The Swerve.
Although reading The Swerve was a very disappointing and upsetting experience for me, all the more so because so very many readers who know even less about ancient Latin literature than I do have assumed that Greenblatt knows much more about it than he obviously does, it led me eventually to another book which I positively love: The Early Textual History of Lucretuius' De Rerum Natura.
It is hard to imagine 2 books about the same book which would be more dissimilar than Greenblatt's book and Butterfield's. The Swerve is a very popular book, full of wild exaggerations, reckless speculation and plain inaccuracies, while The Early Textual History of Lucretuius' De Rerum Natura is definitely not for most readers. It is very radically limited to statements which Butterfield can support with exhaustive evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I'm sure Butterfield would agree; however, in this book he strictly limits himself to that for which he build a solid case. It seems that even compared to many of his colleagues in Classical Studies, Butterfield is very conservative in stating evidence for the transmission of Lucretius.
And yet, what is left over after Butterfield is done rejecting evidence which he deems not sound enough, still presents a picture of a much greater readership of and interaction with Lucretius' poem than that presented by Greenblatt, who carelessly dismisses a thousand years between Late Antiquity and the Renaissance in which, he says, Lucretius was forgotten.
First of all, there are the manuscripts, both those which we still have, and those whose existence the extremely-cautious Butterfield confidently posits.
And I must not go any further before assuring you that I am not a Classicist, nor a scholarly editor, and cannot yet follow Butterfield in all the details of his arguments for the previous existence of manuscripts of de rerum natura. (I've included the modifier "yet" because I intend to re-read Butterfield's book over and over, because I enjoy doing so, and also to consult many of the works Butterfield mentions in his footnotes, so that I may eventually understand him more fully than I now do.) Rather than go into too much detail and risk mis-representing what Butterfield says, I will try to keep it simple, and if there's actually anyone reading this who cares to investigate the matter further, but hasn't yet read Butterfield's book, he or she can read Butterfield's book.
And yes: some of the Latin names of codices below are abbreviated, in the same form as they appear on p 32 of Butterfield, because after I thought it over, I decided that if I tried to write out the full names I would probably mis-spell some. I admit it. I ain't frontin'.
First, the direct transmission: We currently have 3 9th-century manuscripts of Lucretius: the most significant one was written early in the 9th century, on pages which are oblong in shape, and has therefore come to be referred to as O; another, from the late 9th century, is written on square pages and is called Q, from the Latin quadratus, meaning square; and finally there are 3 fragments of another manuscript from the late 9th century, fragments which, together, Butterfield calls S, after the Latin schedae, meaning fragments.
In addition, Butterfield feels that 6 more manuscripts, now missing, written between the 8th and around the 12th century, can be confidently posited:
-- Ω, an 8th-century manuscript from which O was copied;
-- Ψ, also called the Cod. Sang. mid-9th century, copied from Ω, and from which in turn both Q and S were copied;
-- the Codex Dungali, copied from O in the 9th or 10th century;
-- the Cod. Murbac., or Poggianus, the copy which Poggio, a hero of Greenblatt's, found in "some German monastery" (Poggie was not more specific than that in his letter describing the find), copied from O in the 9th or 10th century;
-- the Cod. Corb., copied from Q, possibly in the 12th century; and
-- the Cod. Lobbes, unrelated to any of the others, copied in the 12th century.
So, there are 9 manuscripts of Lucretious' poem, right smack in the middle of the era when, according to Greenblatt, Lucretius was unknown. Plus whatever the Cod. Lobbes was copied from.
In Butterfield's opinion, all of the manuscripts from the 15th century or later were copies, or copies of copies, etc, of Poggianus, although one of them could have been correcting using O.
Next, the indirect transmission: Between the 1st century BC and the 10th century AD, Butterfield says (p 100), "Fifty-five different Latin authors cited 492 different Lucretian verses in full or in part."
In addition, there are 16 fragments which at various times have been thought to have been parts of Lucretius' poem not found in the direct transmission. The skeptical Butterfield says we do have sufficient evidence to regard any of them as actual quotations from Lucretius.
And then there is a very long and very remarkable footnote, pp 286-288, note 1 of Appendix II, in which Butterfiled discusses about a dozen authors who quote Lucretius between the end of the 10th century and Poggio's discovery in 1417, who in Butterfield's opinion could have been quoting from the indirect tradition and not from manuscripts of the entire poem; and about a dozen more who other scholars have said were acquainted with Lucretius, but, according to Butterfield, with insufficient evidence.
The more I learn about Poggio, who according to Greenblatt ushered in the Renaissance by discovering the Poggianus or Cod. Murbac., the less I like him. He seems to me to have been pathologically ill-mannered. Many have taken him to have been badly-disposed toward monks and monasteries, but maybe he just hated everybody, and it only seems that he hated monks because he had mostly to do with monks and monasteries, because monasteries were where most of the manuscripts were which he was looking for. Maybe if he had been a clockmaker instead of a Classical scholar, he would've poured all of that verbal abuse onto his customers, and we never would have heard about it because he would have written far fewer letters, and they all would have been lost.
Speaking of pieces of writing being lost: for a while I thought of accusing Poggio of actually having impeded the process of Classical Studies, because again and again I read of him finding some old manuscript (old in his own time) which was then lost. But as I studied further I saw that Poggio was hardly unique in this regard. For example, look at the 6 now-lost Lucretian manuscripts described above: only 1 passed through Poggio's hands before being lost.
Reviewing Butterfield's book in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, Lisa Piazzi remarks, "Probably only a few specialists will read it from beginning to end." A few specialists and at least 1 oddball autistic blogger. And perhaps 2 or 3 of you will have found this blog post interesting.