Toolkit: Your geologist's hammer, for finding out, your reagents, for finding out what it is you have found out, and your goggles, for maintaining interpretive vision during the process.

Before history can be done, the text sources for history have to be evaluated. This is the grunt work, the unromantic but necessary preliminary.

If the manuscript tradition of a work is complicated, the best possible reconstruction must be made by comparing the manuscript variants, and getting rid of scribal corruption. This is called the lower criticism. It is well defined, and widely understood, and we do not need to describe it here. That work being done, any growth process that led to the text itself must be discovered. Are there later authorial layers, or interpolations within the time period when the text was still live, and served as a school or community authority? Is the whole text the product of a later period? Is it a hoax? This is what is called the higher criticism; the thing for which the lower criticism prepares us by providing the text in a cleaned-up form, for us to work on. Finally, the text must be read, and here too there are subtleties. For one, if the text has a formation history, the meaning of its key terms may change within the work. Its compositional strata, if any, must be identified, and the relation of the text or its constituents to other texts, or to outside events, must be determined; it must be dated. All this work is the province of philology. Only when the philology has been done is the work ready for the historian, who brings quite different skills to its interpretation as a witness to itself and to its times.

Three details in the above definition of philology deserve further comment:

Philology is difficult; it requires erudition and judgement. Is it worth the trouble? The question is inevitable, and Charles-Victor Langlois answered it perfectly:

There is only one argument for the legitimacy and honorable character of the obscure labors of erudition, but it is a decisive argument: it rests on their indispensability. No erudition, no history.

Or as Langlois went on to add, quoting Saint Jerome:

Non sunt contemnenda quasi parva, sine quibus magna constare non possunt. ("Those things are not to be despised as little, without which great things cannot come into being").

This section begins with a brief but brutal introduction (courtesy of A E Housman). It mentions some major philologists of the past, to encourage and inspire those working in the present day. It notes some of the varieties of the text composition and formation process, the least understood part of what philology has to deal with. And there is a final page, by way of transition to more complicated, but ultimately more rewarding, situations.


One relatively new item in the philologist's toolkit is the examination of style, for which see the Style page.

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