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. This text defends clerics from being put on trial in secular courts, and Hincmar wrote it on behalf of his nephew Hincmar of Laon, who was being threatened by King Charles the Bald. 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 (my draft translation of some the text is available here ), while historians have been happily relying on the (not so) trusty PL.
Like the graffiti says: ‘verify the source’…