Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Survival of Classical Texts

In the introduction to Texts and Transmission, L.D. Reynolds helpfully illustrates the contraction and expansion of classical texts from antiquity through the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages with the figure of the hourglass, in which the slender middle represents the almost total disappearance of classical culture from the intellectual scene during the period running from roughly 550-750 A.D. The lack of activity with respect to texts of Vergil illustrates this point. Reynolds notes that

‘[o]f the 16 manuscripts of Rome’s national poet to have survived from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, 6 are attributed to the fourth century, 5 to the fifth, 3 to c.500; then we have nothing until the late eighth century’ (xvi).

Antique and Late Antique laborers were responsible for other tasks, too, which would aid in the resurgence of classical learning in the wake of the Dark Ages, since their craftsmen developed the techniques widely used for book-making:
‘By the fifth century the roll had given way to the codex, a form of book which has never been superseded. Although the change of format had by now yielded to parchment, which was much more durable and not subject to the monopoly of the Middle East; it could be manufactured wherever there were cows and sheep and goats. The beautiful uncial script was firmly established, as was the first minuscule book-hand, half-uncial. All the arts essential to the making of books as the Middle Ages knew them were fully developed’ (xv).

For the Carolingian revival to be possible, of course, texts were needed. Reynolds conjectures that Italy was probably most responsible for the influx of texts in the north. As he states,
‘If we turn to Italy, the results are much more positive; the movement of books northwards over the Alps can be amply documented. It began long before the Carolingian period, as books were attracted to the powerful monastic foundations of northern Europe....When we come to the Carolingian period and manuscript traditions begin to blossom forth in profusion, the chances are that many of their archetypes were books imported from Italy. This is of course often impossible to prove; but it is not unreasonable to assume that many of the texts had indeed travelled by the prevailing wind’ (xxi-xxii)

The most important city for this could well have been Ravenna, since it had remained a political and cultural power into the sixth century (xxiii).

The Caronlingian revival, the first such major revival of interest in classical literature to occur in the Middle Ages, lasted for approximately 100 years, spanning the ninth century. Its major achievement was one of consolidation, and the court and monasteries played the major role (xxv):
‘The fundamental function of the Carolingian revival in the transmission of our texts was to gather in what could be found of the literature and learning of the past and generate from it the new medieval traditions which would carry the classics through the centuries’ (xxiv)

By the end of the ninth century, in fact, most of what we now possess of classical literature 'had...been copied and was enjoying some degree of circulation, however limited, localized, or precarious it may in some cases have been’ (xxvii-xxviii).

An important factor in the success of the promulgation of these texts was the development of a clear and readable script, the Carolingian minuscule. Indeed, regions of the Empire that did not use this script were not nearly as influential as those that did:
‘The comparative illegibility of ‘national’ hands might help to account for the relatively modest contribution of Ireland and Spain and the slowness with which texts written in Beneventan percolated from their base in the south of Italy...’ (xxviii).

In the years following the Carolingian reflorescence, copying activity likely began to be concentrated in the south and west. Reynolds remarks that
‘Two-thirds of the ninth-century manuscripts mentioned in this book were written in what we now know as France....[A]mid all this flux and reflux it is perhaps not too fanciful to sense a general drift towards the south and west, as the deposits of texts built up at the Carolingian court and in the abbeys of western Germany and north-eastern France were carried to other regions, where, sooner or later, they would help to stimulate fresh revivals of classical learning’ (xxix).

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