Verify the Source

If you pay a visit to the Sheffield city archives, you might spot a nearby piece of graffiti, pictured above:  ‘Verify the Source’.

That’s a great lesson, and not just for the patrons of the Sheffield archive, as was brought home to me when I revisited some work I’ve been doing on (who else?) Hincmar of Reims, everyone’s favourite Frankish bishop. I’m particularly interested in a text Hincmar wrote in 868, known as the Rotula, defending clerics from being put on trial in secular courts. It’s quite a famous text (well, in a niche kind-of-way),  and is readily accessible in Patrologia Latina.

PL, as it’s known, is a huge set of Latin texts, whose ubiquity has been strengthened by being readily available – and searchable – online. The problem is that Patrologia Latina was put together in the 19th century in a hurry,  and mostly just reprinted earlier editions. In this case, it relied for Hincmar’s text on a 17th-c. edition by a French Jesuit called Louis Cellot. So,  the searchable version of PL on your screen is a striking combination of 21st, 19th and 17th-century text technologies – a triple mediation of the early medieval manuscripts.

And in this case, a price has been paid.

Because though Cellot’s edition was quite good, it relied on a very partial manuscript of Hincmar’s work, now in Barcelona (Ripoll 40). Another version of the Rotula  is however available in a different manuscript, one now in Berlin (SB Phill 1741). And it’s a much more complete version, with several fairly long passages not present in the Barcelona manuscript, or in Cellot’s edition, or in the PL.

And what that means is that a key passage in a key work by a key early medieval author has never – to my knowledge – been edited before (a draft English translation is given below), while historians have been happily relying on the (not so) trusty PL.

Like the graffiti says: ‘verify the source’…

Hincmar of Reims: a new passage of the Rotula (868)
“And if a bishop or any ecclesiastical cleric has a case against a layman, and the layman with the cleric seeks episcopal judgement or agrees to undergo it, then each party should and can absolutely be judged by the bishops. But if the layman does not seek episcopal judgment nor agrees to undergo it, then the ecclesiastical cleric should pursue his case against the layman in his forum, with the permission of the bishop involved, through a procurator: except for criminal actions and those actions for which the holy laws set out a clear account of how they should be amended and corrected, as the Valentinian Law demonstrates, saying “If any cleric accuses someone in a dispute, let him be heard in the forum of him whom he summons to the judge, if however the accused does not agree to come to priestly judgement”. And the holy Leo and the Roman synod in the letter cited above indeed says “If a cleric accuses a layman, let him first demand to be heard by bishops, then if he sees that the layman blocks his request, let him contest it in the disceptatio of secular moderators, with his bishop’s permission”. That is, not in person but through an advocate, as the law of Archadius and Honorius and Theodosius decrees”.