In This Article Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Collections of Essays
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Reproductions of Notable Manuscripts
  • Greek Studies in the 15th Century
  • The First Printed Editions

Classics Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature
Richard Tarrant
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0302


“Transmission” in this context refers to the ways in which the texts of classical Greek and Latin authors circulated and were preserved until the invention of printing. The most important of these is the copying of manuscripts, but other forms of evidence are also relevant: they include scholia or commentaries, quotations in ancient or medieval authors, unattributed allusions (where coincidental similarity is unlikely), and appearances in medieval library catalogues. The study of transmission thus draws on a wider range of evidence than the study of a manuscript tradition. The textual critic or editor and the student of transmission also operate in opposite directions: the former uses the evidence to work backward to the original (or as close to it as the material allows), while the latter moves forward from the earliest attainable state of the text to its arrival in printed form. The study of transmission is sometimes referred to by its German equivalent, Überlieferungsgeschichte (literally “history of handing over”), a term that emphasizes the historical nature of the field. By determining who read a given text, at what times, and in what places, the study of transmission puts flesh on the skeleton produced by the analysis of manuscript readings. While editors of classical texts since the Renaissance have used manuscripts as the basis for their editions, the study of text history for its own sake only emerged in the latter part of the 19th century. It began as an outgrowth of paleography, as that discipline acquired a firmer historical orientation. Several pioneering figures, such as Ludwig Traube (1861–1907) and Wallace M. Lindsay (1858–1937), were expert paleographers, and some of the most distinguished 20th-century scholars of transmission, such as Bernhard Bischoff (1906–1991), also produced important paleographical work. The transmission of a text is usually understood as ending when that text reached print. Logically speaking, the history of printed editions of a work could also be considered part of its transmission, but that phase of a text’s history is normally regarded as the province of editorial scholarship. The study of transmission has close relations with a number of other disciplines: paleography, textual criticism and editing, medieval and Byzantine studies, intellectual history, reception studies, and the history of the book. To include all scholarship in those areas containing material relevant to transmission would make this bibliography unmanageably large; consequently, works the focus of which is primarily paleographical or text-critical or that deal with the reception of the classics as distinct from the transmission of classical texts have not been cited.

General Works

There is only one work that covers the entire field of transmission in an up-to-date fashion, Reynolds and Wilson 2013; fortunately, it is an excellent one. Hunger 1961 is an earlier attempt at a comprehensive treatment. Pasquali 1934 is a classic that helped put the study of transmission on the map. Kristeller 1960– provides summaries of the fortuna (afterlife) of selected Greek and Latin authors. For Greek authors, Dilts 1995 is a concise survey. For Latin authors, the short individual accounts in Reynolds 1983 provide a convenient starting point. Munk Olsen 1982–2014 is a fundamental point of reference for the medieval copying and reception of the Latin classics.

  • Dilts, Mervin R. 1995. Greek literature: From Antiquity to the Renaissance. In Scholarly editing: A guide to research. Edited by D. C. Greetham, 75–94. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

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    Concise overview of the transmission of Greek literature, with several sections of bibliography. Also includes a list of “exemplary editions” of the major Greek authors.

  • Hunger, Herbert, ed. 1961. Geschichte der Textüberlieferung der antiken und mittelalterlichen Literatur I. Antikes und mitteralterliches Buch- und Schriftwesen. Überlieferungsgeschichte der antiken Literatur. Zurich, Switzerland: Artemis Verlag.

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    Relevant sections are: Hunger on books in antiquity and a history of Greek and Latin palaeography (pp. 25–147); Hartmut Erbse on the transmission of Greek texts (pp. 207–283) with appendix by Max Imhof on imperial Greek literature (pp. 285–307); Karl Büchner on the transmission of Latin texts (pp. 311–422). The sections by Erbse and Büchner contain brief accounts of the transmission of select individual authors. Now outdated in many respects.

  • Kristeller, Paul Oskar, ed. 1960–. Catalogus translationum et commentariorum: Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin Translations and Commentaries; Annotated Lists and Guides. 9 vols. Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press.

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    Volumes 10 and 11: Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. An enormously ambitious project to produce an annotated catalogue of all medieval and Renaissance commentaries on classical texts. Also includes Latin translations and commentaries on Greek authors. The bulk of the material is from the humanist period, but each author entry begins with a narrative of the author’s fortuna from antiquity onward. As of 2016, eleven volumes have appeared.

  • Munk Olsen, Birger. 1982–2014. L’Etude des auteurs classiques latins aux xie et xiie siècles. 4 parts in 7 vols. Paris: Editions du CNRS.

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    Parts 1 and 2 contain descriptions of manuscripts of all major classical Latin authors written before the end of the 12th century. Part 3 (in two volumes) registers classical Latin authors in medieval library catalogues and provides Addenda and Corrigenda to Parts 1 and 2. Part 4 (also in two volumes) deals with the reception of classical Latin authors. A work of staggering erudition, and a fundamental instrument of research.

  • Pasquali, Giorgio. 1934. Storia della tradizione e critica del testo. Florence: Le Monnier.

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    A groundbreaking book that demonstrated the need for textual critics to reckon with the historical dimension of a text’s transmission. Some of Pasquali’s arguments have been universally accepted—e.g., that later manuscripts (recentiores) are not necessarily inferior (deteriores)—while others, such as his belief in author’s variants and ancient editions, remain controversial. Second edition 1952, third edition 1962.

  • Reynolds, L. D.. 1983. Texts and transmission: A survey of the Latin classics. Edited by L. D. Reynolds. Oxford: Clarendon.

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    Conceived as a tribute to R. A. B. Mynors, the volume contains concise accounts of the manuscript tradition and transmission of all authors with an independent transmission down to Apuleius, with more selective treatment of later authors. Reynolds’s Introduction (pp. xiii–xliii) provides a masterly overview. A successor volume, with shorter entries and expanded coverage of late-antique texts, is in preparation under the editorship of Justin Stover. Contributors include P. K. Marshall, M. D. Reeve, L. D. Reynolds, R. H. Rouse, R. J. Tarrant, M. Winterbottom.

  • Reynolds, L. D., and N. G. Wilson. 2013. Scribes and scholars: A guide to the transmission of Greek and Latin literature. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Originally published in 1968 and revised in 1974, 1991, and 2013, this is by far the best account available of the transmission of the Greek and Latin classics. A highly readable narrative is supported by endnotes that provide generous and up-to-date bibliographical information. Includes a clear exposition of the principles of textual criticism. (Reynolds died in 1999, a fact not mentioned in Wilson’s preface to the 2013 edition.)

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