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Re: tc-list Article in Nature

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  • Robert B. Waltz
    On Tue, 1 Sep 1998, James R. Covey wrote: [ ... ] ... Thanks for posting this. I think I/we still need to look up the article in
    Message 1 of 4 , Sep 1, 1998
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      On Tue, 1 Sep 1998, "James R. Covey" <jrcovey@...> wrote:

      [ ... ]

      >from the BBC:

      Thanks for posting this. I think I/we still need to look up
      the article in _Nature_, but now we can at least come up
      with preliminary responses.

      [ ... ]

      >>Chaucer's Canterbury Tales may not be as racy as scholars
      >>Students of Chaucer may have to rethink their theories about
      >>one of the most notorious woman in early English literature,
      >>the Wife of Bath.
      >>Using evolutionary biology,

      I don't believe it! Somebody else is actually using an idea
      I've been preaching for years. :-)

      Note: I am not claiming credit for this. They did the work;
      I merely discussed the idea with people informally. But the
      link to biology, genealogy, etc. is one I have been talking
      about for years -- they are all evolutionary processes.

      >>scientists have been able to
      >>debunk the long-held theory that the sexually voracious Wife
      >>of Bath was actually so outrageous.
      >>Biologists at Cambridge University have used a system
      >>developed for tracing the origin of the species through
      >>their DNA to work out which of the 58 surviving versions of
      >>The Canterbury Tales are closest to the original, which no
      >>longer exists.

      This statement, if accurate, strikes me as disturbing. It implies
      that the scholars are looking for an original *manuscript*,
      not an original text.

      Now I know that people on this list vary in the degree and
      form of their eclecticism (is that the correct spelling?
      My spellchecker offers "eclecticsm"!). But I think we would
      all agree -- even the supporters of the Byzantine Text --
      that no single manuscript should be followed

      [ ... ]

      >>The results of the research - published in the scientific
      >>journal Nature - found evidence for believing that Chaucer's
      >>own copy was not a completed single text but a working

      This is to be expected, actually. The _Tales_ were never

      [ ... ]

      >>Family trees
      >>Until now, the technique, known as 'stemmatics', has been a
      >>laborious manual process only feasible for a few short
      >>But Dr Howe realised it had much in common with the
      >>techniques used by evolutionary biologists to track
      >>different species' family trees.
      >>He and his team concentrated on The Wife of Bath's Prologue
      >>to produce a computer-generated family tree showing the
      >>relationships between the 58 different 15th century versions
      >>of the story.
      >>A number of manuscripts formed groups which could be traced
      >>back to distinct common ancestors.

      There is nothing new here. It should be noted that, compared
      to the New Testament, the data for Chaucer is limited, recent,
      and tightly grouped.

      Applying the same system to New Testament manuscripts is
      far harder. It can certainly be done (the Claremont
      Profile Method or the Munster "Thousand Readings" shows
      that databases can be constructed to cover all manuscripts).
      And we would doubtless discover many kinship groups not
      presently known (even in the Gospels, since the Claremont
      method is not properly controlled). But I strongly suspect
      we will not be able to get true genealogy.

      This is, of course, conventional wisdom. But it's also
      *true*, in my experience. We can and have reconstructed
      "family" texts (e.g. the subgroups of Family 13). We can
      make good progress on sub-text-types (e.g. P75-B-T,
      family 1739). But text-types probably cannot be reconstructed,
      and we will almost certainly not be able to go beyond that.

      >>One particular group appeared to go back further than the
      >>others to a point probably close to the missing original.
      >>Yet these manuscripts had mostly been ignored by scholars.

      This is interesting and perhaps informative. It also has
      analogies in New Testament criticism, where some interesting
      and important families of minuscules barely make it into
      our apparatuses (examples include Family 2138, Family 330,
      Family 2127, even Family 1739, which gets attention but not
      as much as it should).

      >>Dr Robinson added that the work had given the team a
      >>"radically more efficient" way of discovering the early
      >>history of the Tales.
      >>"It has already suggested vital new approaches to
      >>long-unsolved problems, which will bring us much closer to
      >>understanding what Chaucer left behind him at his death."

      I do think we need to be cautious about this. (Too bad we
      can't get an article in TC about the software. :-) I think
      there is great potential to sort out families and groups.
      I'm not sure it will help us in the greater problem of
      reconstructing the original text -- especially if the
      basic method continues to be reasoned eclecticism. (Personally,
      I'd be willing to trust a computer to reconstruct a text --
      as long as I controlled the algorithms. :-) But I wonder how
      many others here would?)

      Still, I want to know more, and hope to learn more.


      Robert B. Waltz

      Want more loudmouthed opinions about textual criticism?
      Try my web page: http://www.skypoint.com/~waltzmn
      (A site inspired by the Encyclopedia of NT Textual Criticism)
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