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  • Rant: Lost Works, Mary Beard and ‘the Survival of the Fittest’ November 3, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    ‘Mary Beard’, ‘Mary Beard’..: even now, twenty years on from the beginning of Beachcombing’s infatuation (naturally unfulfilled), the words are enough to send a lightening bolt into that blogger’s overstrained central cortex. Beachcombing still remembers seeing Mary’s swan-like body for the first time, in the reading room at the UL: indeed, Beachcombing trembled as Britain’s most beautiful don floated by in a shower of champagne and strawberry perfume. Today Beachcombing is a happily married man. But he would lie both to his readers and to himself if he were to deny that sometimes, towards night fall,  he feels the passing of raven wings, somewhere at the edge of his being…

    Beachcombing was brought back to MB recently – though in truth he’s never that far away – by an article of hers in response to a question set by the Guardian (British newspaper): would it have been better had some surviving works of ancient authors been lost?

    Beachcombing is not a habitual Guardian reader – frankly he woudn’t wrap his vegie burger and chips in that rag – and so missed out on this piece when it came out in late September. Enter though David Meadows over at Rogue Classicism who spared Beachcombing having to link to the Grundiag.

    Habitual readers of Beachcombing will understand that Beachcombing – with his enthusiasm for invisible libraries and burning libraries – was desperately excited by the collision of such an exciting theme and such an exciting author. MB’s conclusions though were at best only part of the story: ‘perhaps the history of the transmission of the classical texts has been a pretty efficient sorting mechanism: the survival of the fittest’.

    In the interests of the study of lost texts Beachcombing is going to strike back: not least because anything coming from MB’s impressive keyboard will quickly become quotable wisdom.

    Thinking of classical and, indeed, early medieval texts the bottle-neck in western history is the fifth through twelfth century. There transmission depends on monks – Greek- or Latin- or neither-speaking – who dutifully and often dozily copied out texts. If an author of earlier times could convince one of these monks that a piece of vellum was worth writing on then the chances are that said author would survive. If, on the other hand, a classical writer irritated the monk then the game was up.

    ‘Survival of the fittest’ is always a dangerous, possibly a tautological phrase. However, make no mistake, when those judging ‘the fittest’ are cowled individuals whose idea of a good time is listening to the Gospel of John in refectory, then the best classical texts (as judged by us moderns) are in worlds of trouble.

    So, for example, early medieval monks were fascinated by grammar and as a result we have an extremely rich canon of classical grammatical texts. Likewise they were fascinated by early Christian texts, some of which are best described as ‘dross’: Beachcombing cringes remembering a long-ago reading of the Shepherd of Hermas; while the dolts almost kicked Revelations out of the Bible in the fourth century. Doh!

    But if you were a text relating to an uncomfortable side of Christianity – Pelagian, Priscillian or Arian, say – then your chances of getting through were close to zero. Likewise, if you were a text relating to something that Christian monks disapproved of – cottaging in the Satyricon or pagan gods in Beowulf – then you were not going to get copied out easily. Beachcombing won’t get onto here works that were copied but that were altered by the copiers: e.g. Josephus in his description of the man Christ, ‘if it be lawful to call him a man’.

    Even the inoffensive had to spark some element of monkly interest: the skill and material employed by monastic libraries was substantial. MB waxes lyrical, for example, about Tacitus, but the silent one’s Annals only just made it through thanks to a single German manuscript, stolen and then bought off the back of a truck by a crooked pope. A lot of classical history rests on that one survival – survival of the fittest indeed! 

    Now if, in the west, we got all our texts from ‘the level playing-field’ of the Saharan Desert (say the ‘library’ of Nag Hammadi) or from a reading of surviving but presently carbonised and (as yet) unreadable texts from Herculaneum, then there might be something in MB’s argument. There would be at least the sense – were our sample big enough – that we were looking at the most popular books from the Empire: though one dreads to think how that would work out for historians and archaeologists in the thirty-first century looking back at our civilisation – Dan Brown and Delia Smith…

    But the fact is that only a small selection of manuscripts and fragments survive from before the collapse of the western Empire. The vast, vast, vast majority of early medieval and classical texts that come down to us come to us through the sieve of monastic libraries. Fans of lost books, half lost books and books that just made it through should always then blame or credit the monks! 

    As for this nonsense – that MB does not subscribe to – that we are better off without some texts… Enjoy the thrill of Renaissance scholars finding previously unknown letters by Cicero. Or, in our own time, look at the bomb of excitement that Mirella Ferrariset off with 39 new lines from De reditu suo or that the great Dolbeau created when he dug out the ‘missing’ sermons of Augustine in Verona.

    Oh happy beings…

    Beachcombing is always interested in anyone who has anything good to say about MB or about lost texts generally: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    PS MB is brilliant in this article on the lost Comedy of Aristotle that Beachcombing dealt with rather weakly a couple of months ago