How to Read Variants

A critical edition or variorum edition will contain information about textual variants that appear in different manuscripts (or early printed editions) of the same text. Because two manuscripts seldom contain exactly identical texts, it is useful to know how a particular manuscript varies from the edited text. In this section, we first discuss how to read the variants you may find in a critical or variorum edition, and then discuss the difference between substantive and non-substantive variants.

Conventions of Printing Variants

Before the advent of the internet, the best way to display variant readings of a text was to include them in a printed edition. When a medieval text appears in numerous manuscripts, displaying variants coherently and efficiently can present a challenge. Scholars developed conventions to display variants in printed editions that amount to a kind of shorthand. Although online hypertext editions offer new solutions to the problem of variant presentation, it is still useful to know how to read a printed variant, because printed editions are still the most readily available sources for many medieval texts, and because online editing has, in most cases, adopted the conventions of printed editing.

Let's begin by looking at an example (fake) variant that contains many of the features you can expect to see in a real variant. Mouse over sections of this variant to see what the different parts of it mean.

[893 wol nat IA¹ Dg Th; I nyl H¹ H³; nyl I β except Th.

So, what are A¹, Dg, β, and so forth? These are abbreviations for manuscripts, printed editions, or textual families. A full list of these abbreviations should appear at the beginning of the notes or the edition you are consulting. In our example, such a list might look like this:

A¹      Additional 13452, British Library 
Dg     Digby 90, Bodleian 
H¹      Harley 101, British Library 
H³      Harley 323, British Library 
Ii        Ii.3.13, Cambridge University Library 
Fx      Fairfax 153, Bodleian 
S¹      Arch.Selden B.10, Bodleian 
Th     Thynne's edition, 1532, STC 5068 
α:      A¹, Dg, H¹, H³; β: Ii, Fx, S¹, Th.

The two-character abbreviations (or sigla) stand for individual manuscripts or early printed editions. In this case, A¹, Dg, H¹ and H³ are all manuscripts; Th is a sixteenth-century edition printed by Thynne, which is listed in the Short Title Catalogue (STC) as item 5068. The Greek letters indicate the textual families of these manuscripts. In this case, there appear to be two main families. The first, α, consists of the first four manuscripts in the list, and the second, β, consists of the remaining manuscripts and Thynne's edition.

What are the implications of this variant to the choice of text presented in this edition? The editors chose a variant that exists in only two of the seven extant manuscripts of the text, and in the single early edition. They probably chose this reading because it fits the meter better than the other options. In this case, the meaning of all the variants is the same.

Substantive and Non-Substantive Variants

Which variants are worth recording? Even the most scrupulous edition may not record every difference between manuscripts, partly for the practical reason that this might swell the apparatus to the point it becomes unusable, partly because not all kinds of difference between manuscripts are considered of equal relevance in most editing methods. It is rare, for example, for editions to record differences in spelling (unless they might point to differences in meter, as in the example above), capitalization, abbreviation, or punctuation (which is often ignored even when it might provide a useful guide to meaning). Editions of prose texts may not record all differences in word order or every omission or inclusion of "minor" words, such as "and." Variants considered worth recording are referred to as substantive.

Because editing has traditionally been understood as an act of recovery of the author's text, or of an early version of a text, what counts as substantive is generally defined solely around issues of meaning. However, important information about a text's transmission, the habits and relationships of its scribes, the history of spelling and punctuation, and other topics can be derived from paying attention to what are generally considered non-substantive variants. One of the most significant potentials of the hypertext edition is its ability to offer access to variants at this level.