As I learned the term (now way) back in my graduate student days, a
diplomatic edition is one that replicates the ms as closely as possible,
"mistakes," abbreviations, and all. This means that nothing is expanded
unless it is carefully noted as such, requiring some special symbols for the
usual sigla. There are a number of reasons for this. First, it prevents
the "obvious" meaning from obscuring what is actually in the ms, since the
"obvious" meaning is sometimes wrong. (I remember Egdar Polome explaining
how he found a form in a late Icelandic family saga that was considered by
the editor "obviously" to be something different and was so transcribed by
the editor. Polome instead recognized it as an Indo-European form otherwise
unattested in Icelandic that did not require change at all. [As he put it,
"You just run it through the sound changes from Sankrit and there it is!"])
Second, the ms form may indicate a mistake by a writer, compiler, redactor,
or scribe. (In one example from an edition I once did, a dictionary entry
for "semispatium" [< L spata 'sword'] was glossed as 'halfe a space' instead
of 'halfe a sweorde' because of the virtual identity in the formation of the
letters "c" and "t" in that ms's hand.) While 'halfe a space' was an
absurdity, it did tell us something about the transmission of the ms
So a diplomatic edition, at least as I learned it, has a very (probably
unattainable) standard (allowing almost anyone to write a "scorched earth"
review, as it happens). For some texts, such as those which exist in many
copies and about which there are not a lot of questions, a diplomatic
edition may be an overly fastidious, if not obsessive, exercise. But some
especially difficult texts, it is probably the best because it preserves the
ms content better than anything sort of the original (or a very good
A hellava lot of work though....
----- Original Message -----
From: Dennis King <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Thursday, January 27, 2000 10:54 PM
Subject: diplomatic edition
> Francine recently mentioned a "diplomatic reading" of the Tuan story.
> I wonder if the someone could help clarify this concept for me.
> In _Progress in Medieval Irish Studies_ (Maynooth, 1996), Kim McCone
> says of "diplomatic" editing that "it can be applied to any text
> surviving in one or more manuscripts: the text of a given manuscript,
> usually with abbreviations etc. duly expanded and words divided, is
> presented and often accompanied by basic textual notes."
> In a scorched-earth-take-no-prisoners* review of this book, David
> Dumville say bluntly that "'diplomatic' editing is then incorrectly
> defined." He does not say, however, in what way. Any suggestions?
> *Dumville goes on to liken both McCone and Liam Breatnach to Toad
> of Toad Hall (of "The Wind in the Willows"), on account of the
> degree of their self-absorption in their own scholarly deeds.
> Dennis King - Stair an Fhocail: molt