Textual criticism

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Textual criticism is a branch of scholarship. The textual critic seeks to establish a text as close as possible to the intentions of its original author. Such a critical edition is important before attempting any evaluation or other further study of the text in question.

  • Textual criticism is of most obvious importance when studying ancient texts. Many manuscript copies of the Bible - and fragments of manuscripts, quotations from the Bible, and so on - exist. Many have significant differences from each other, and minor differences, such as mis-copied letters, spelling mistakes and so on, are widespread. There are very few 'autographs' (manuscripts in the author's handwriting) known from the period before the invention of printing; and even then, when paper was expensive, and valued as a waste material, they are rare. (There are three pages extant (in the play Sir Thomas More) which are believed to be in Shakespeare's own hand, but this is not definitively proved; in his six known signatures, there are six spellings of his name, which indicates some of the difficulties in dealing with past texts.)
  • Even in modern times, textual criticism is helpful. An author's intentions may change; a text may exist in different editions, showing its development through time, and even nowadays, printing and copying may introduce alterations and accidents. Scholars like to work on agreed texts, and this may involve, for example, choosing an earlier edition of a work over a later, or even a final, edition, because it is felt that the author's abilities were declining.