3. Printed sources and the philological method
Traditional scholarship in legal history is based in principle and practice on the conviction that early printed editions are effectively interchangeable. Although its practitioners would doubtless hesitate to formulate the principle quite so nakedly, it is perhaps best captured in the nuances of the English expression "any old edition will do". Thus contemporary works of legal-historical scholarship generally exhibit in their "bibliographies" the list of early editions consulted, a list which inevitably reveals the entirely random concatenation of editions which happened to stand on the shelves of the library most conveniently at the disposition of the individual scholar. Underlying such works lies the unspoken assumption, as erroneous as it is universal, that all editions of printed books are "more or less the same". The difference between the manuscript and the printed book, so the argument runs, is that whereas every manuscript is different, every edition is the same. The invention of printing assured the mass production of identical texts, while each successive edition simply reproduced the text of its predecessor.
In reality, however, the invention of printing had precisely the opposite effect. The economics of early printing, when labour was cheap and paper enormously expensive, when conditions of storage were primitive and neither insurance nor copyright sufficiently developed to protect a publishing enterprise, compelled the early publisher to make small print-runs of a book for relatively secure, immediate sale. Quite apart from the contingent risks, it was economically unviable to tie up considerable sums of capital in the paper entailed in the storage of a large stock of books in the expectation of future sales. On the other hand, were a book to prove particularly successful, it could, taking advantage of low labour costs, be quickly and cheaply reset in print in another edition. It is for this reason that we find the long succession of editions of the same work which is the hallmark of the early printed book. As an example we may cite the work considered on the conventional view to inaugurate the modern period in legal history, the Annotationes in Pandectas of the French humanist, Gulielmus Budaeus. This great compilation of encyclopedic classical scholarship was published repeatedly by Badius Ascensius at Paris in the years 1508, c.1519, 1521, 1524, 1527, 1530 and 1532.
This pattern of printing had a vital effect on the text itself. For it meant that a contemporary author was able to introduce changes into his text every two or three years. The tendency of an author to add, cancel or emend parts of his text over time may well be universal, as indeed is suggested by the autograph manuscripts of authors from medieval times to the present day. The innovation of early printing was to freeze particular moments in this process, so that clearly discernible strata of the text achieved the permanence of print. With early printing, therefore, a new form of text emerges, a text which not only lives and moves, but one which can transparently be seen to do so. "The text" has given way to a succession of texts, a sequence of recensions, all evidencing alterations introduced by the author himself. In the end, the final version of the text may diverge markedly from the first thoughts of the author, published perhaps decades previously. No better example of this phenomenon can be adduced than the same Annotationes in Pandectas of Budaeus. With the possible exception of that of 1532, each of the editions listed above presents a different text. The final version, which has come to be disseminated most widely (both in the 16th century and most recently through the 1966 anastatic reproduction of the posthumous edition of Budaeus' Opera Omnia), quite apart from evincing editorial intervention not sanctioned by the author, is profoundly transformed from that originally published at Paris in 1508.
Scholarship on legal humanism which relies upon the use of a random edition is pre-determined to fall into error. The first principle of serious research on the legal humanists is the construction of an accurate analytical bibliography of the editions of their works. This will pave the way for the necessary collation of the text in the primary editions in order to reveal the changes made by the author in successive editions.
See: Text and Technology.
Rechtshistorisches Journal 14 (1995) pp.309-331
Developments in the Text of Alciatus' Dispunctiones.
Ius Commune 19 (1992) pp.219-35
Dies Diem Docet.
Ius Commune 18 (1991) pp.207-224