Chasing Krüger’s Dream: Studying the Transmission of Classical and Medieval Manuscripts Using Lattice Theory and Information Entropy

Lecture announcement:

September 27, 2012
Lecture: “Chasing Krüger’s Dream: Studying the Transmission of Classical and Medieval Manuscripts Using Lattice Theory and Information Entropy.” John W. Hessler, Kluge Staff Fellow.
4:00 – 5:00 p.m., LJ-119, Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. Reception to follow.


How accurately have culturally fundamental texts from literature, law, science, geography, and philosophy been handed down from ancient Rome and Greece to the present by way of scribal copying in the Middle Ages?  This fundamental question of how various manuscripts from a textual tradition have been transmitted through space and time has been the concern of scholars since at least the founding of the great Library of Alexandria in the third century BC.

Early Medieval scribes recognized that in the process of copying ancient texts mistakes were made, and that these errors became part of the textual tradition, to be passed on through history. They also realized that this process of copying error had a random or chaotic nature, and so they invented the demon Tutivillus, whom they considered to be the error’s source. Throughout the Renaissance scholars, like Erasmus, battled this demon in their attempts to re-construct important Latin and Greek manuscripts descended from antiquity. Later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries scholars, like Karl Lachmann and Paul Krüger, tried to systematize a method in order to determine which parts of medieval manuscripts were errors, and which were the real readings descended from the original authors.

This paper will highlight a new computational technique to show how modern digital philology is changing the way we think of the transmission of medieval manuscripts through space and time, and is also helping to solve this seemingly simple, but unfortunately, rather complicated problem. Using the notes of the classical philologist Paul Krüger, whose manuscripts were recently rediscovered in the Law Library of Congress, complex three dimensional visualization techniques will be used to show how the medieval manuscripts making up the Codex of Justinian are spatially and temporally related to each other. This talk will also highlight how these new techniques give scholars the tools to postulate what the structure of missing and destroyed manuscripts might have been.  Using these methods, based in lattice theory and information entropy, this paper can be seen as a case study in how digital and computational algorithms are changing the face of even the most traditional of the humanities, classical philology.

The results of this study and my year long Kluge Fellowship will be published in the book  called, Roman Law in Ruins: a Computational Study of the Medieval Transmission of Justinian’s Codex. This has been made possible through a generous grant from the American Academy in Rome and it will be published copyright free both in hardcover and on the web by Franz-Steiner Verlag (Berlin) in February, 2014 as part of their Alte Geschichte Monograph Series.

About Tom Elliott

Associate Director for Digital Programs and Senior Research Scholar, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University
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