A few weeks ago I spent an hour or so cursing the name of Scandinavian scholar who was active in the 1960s and 1970s. See, I was working with a minor Old English text, the only edition of which was produced in 1968 by the Swede in question. One sentence was giving me a lot of trouble, mainly because it contained the word "or," a very uncommon form for which I was unable to find a suitable translation. In situations like this, my first instinct is to doubt my own translation skills. Maybe this form represented some kind of dialectal variant that I wasn't familiar with. I tried substituting similar forms for a while, but to no avail. I was just about ready to throw in the towel when I thought of checking my facsimile copy of the MS, just in case the editor's reading was off. Sure enough, there in the MS, clear as day, was "of" rather than "or." It was so clear, in fact, that it couldn't really be considered a mistaken reading. It was, quite simply, a typo. Happens to the best of us, I know, but in this case the typographical error in question caused me some significant trouble. And I may not be alone. Though the edition in question (which appears in an fairly obscure Swedish journal, if that's not too redundant) probably hasn't been read by more than a generous handful of people, the error has persisted into the Dictionary of Old English electronic corpus. Which means that someone searching the corpus can find this hit for the word "or"...which does not exist in Old English at all. I assume some one will catch the error by the time the DOE team gets to the letter O (which may or may not be in my lifetime, if current progress rates continue), but until that time, there's the possibility, however remote, of scholars being very misled. By a typo.
It occurs to me, however, that medieval scholars, such as myself, should be fairly sympathetic when encountering mistakes like these. We are, after all, intimately familiar with the concept of scribal error. Error is just a fact of life for medievalists, though not one that we're always very happy about. Few things about medieval literature are as frustrating as scribal error. I mean, it's one thing to try to analyze a text written in a foreign (and dead) language, a product of a culture that we can do little more than guess about. But when you add in the possibility that the words on the page are not just foreign but may be simply wrong, it can be discouraging, to say the least. The text I was working with a few weeks ago, the one edited by the careless Swede, contained several apparent errors (apparent in the sense that they resulted in meaningless, or at least obscure, sentences). What drives me nuts is that I likely won't ever get to know for sure what was meant in some of these cases. Editors can propose emendation, of course, and after a while those emendations can start to feel like the real thing, but we'll never know whether the emendation reflects the intention of the author of the the text. Our modern understanding of Beowulf, incidentally, is particularly rife with these kinds of emendations, so much so that scholars sometimes base elaborate arguments about the meaning of the poem on words that do not appear in the single manuscript version of the text. Surely this is not good.
On the other hand, errors, or at least the concept of scribal error, can sometimes be a scholar's best friend. First of all, of course, they are the closest thing we have to a true window into the psychology of those responsible for medieval texts. The thousand years or so that separate us from the texts we study can create a very real wall between us and them. Speaking only for myself, I can say that I often find it difficult to relate very directly with medieval texts. They're just so old, and the language is just so weird, that I feel very much outside the world of the text, especially when I read texts in printed editions. Interacting with the manuscript directly can help create a more immediate connection with the text, in that you know that you're touching (if only metaphorically; don't get your greasy prints on the manuscripts, kids!) the same object that the scribe touched. But to really feel that connection, nothing works like scribal error. If nothing else, such errors humanize medieval texts for us modern types.
And scribal errors also open up texts to greater possibilities. The same lack of determination that is so frustrating when you're just trying to figure out what the blasted thing says can also be very liberating when you're trying to determine what the blasted thing means. I'm not really talking about the "openness" of texts in a postmodern sense (though it's true that nothing brings home the idea of play in a text like scribal error). I just mean that it's fun, from a scholarly perspective, to try to work through the errors in a text. In the text that I was working with, I'm pretty sure that a very obscure sentence, in which it appears that fasting should be considered sinful, makes a lot more sense if the scribe intended to write a form of "æfste" (Old English for "envy") instead of "fæstene" (OE for "fasting"). I can't guarantee that the reading in question is an error, but it's exciting, nevertheless, to think that I may have "figured out" this sentence in a way that goes beyond what's written on the page.
Now if I could only feel a similar sense of excitement when working through the varieties of "scribal error" that I see in my students' writing.*
*NOTE: my wife suggested that I discuss a few of my favorite student errors in this post. Because I assume that most of my readers have their own such lists, I won't bore you with specifics. Except to say that at the top of such list would have to be the paper I received last semester which, in the context of discussing scenes between Gawain and Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, kept referring to the "gentle care" expressed in the scenes. Except she misspelled "gentle." In a really unfortunate way. By the time she referred to the kisses in the scene being conducted with the same kind of care, I knew I had a classic on my hands.