Historical story

Medieval copy mistakes were deliberate

Last updated:2022-07-25

Medieval copyists—professional writers who copied texts by copying them—often had more in mind than just making a meticulous copy. Especially for texts that were intended to be read aloud, both copyists and users adapted the content to the wishes of their audience.

No two medieval copies of the same text are identical. And while philologists long ago thought this was the result of sloppy copying, medievalists now know that those slight variations were often made deliberately by copyists. Copyists and users of the texts often edited, rewrote and reshaped the texts. Variation heard in the medieval (over)writing culture.

Researcher Maarten Prot investigated the evolution of medieval texts in two specific cases. He will receive his PhD today for this research at Utrecht University. Prot looked at 25 different versions (manuscripts) of two stories about the lives of apostles; Virtutes Bartholomei and Virtutes Philippi, bundled in a series containing Virtutes Apostolorum is called. In the Middle Ages, these texts were probably mainly intended to be read aloud. Their text variations over the centuries give a picture of the changing wishes of the audience that heard them.

Previously, medieval manuscripts were roughly divided into two large families, a Bavarian and a Frankish one, both of which had their own writing traditions. According to Prot, that distinction can now be further refined. The Frankish manuscript tradition in particular appears to have many more variations. Prot also entered the Virtutes Apostolorum manuscripts in which copyists forged texts from different traditions together into a new whole.

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