I’ve just been mailed about what sounds like a project that could be completely misguided, well-guided but bonkers or actually really quite cunning. Observe this page at the website of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry, and ask yourself what a research group in Plant Biology are doing with a picture from the Canterbury Tales on their page. Is it just that they’re observing “Whan That Aprille” week? It seems not.
In fact these guys are working on testing a theory (which has been published in Nature and therefore presumably isn’t utter babbasquadgeness) that scribal errors accumulate down a manuscript stemma in a manner with analogies to the accumulation of mutation in DNA sequences. What would that tell us, I wonder, and the answer apparently is: they’re not sure yet but maybe something about likelihood of copying error? I guess it might give us tests for how many redactions a text had gone through from an exemplar, and I can see how there might be theoretical parallels: an error that fits well with its context may be preserved (for example, “bretwalda” for “brytenwalda”, no?) because it makes sense, in the same way that a favourable mutation might… I suppose? They also mention using it to clarify processes where one text was made from several different ancestor manuscripts, and I suppose it could make that process of comparison more rigorous although to be honest comparison of variants is already pretty gosh-darn scientific in that field when done right (that is, by people who actually understand statistics, who are sadly scant in medieval studies).
Anyway, in order to test this they are getting volunteers to copy some medieval texts and then they’re going to analyse the errors. I would have thought that observation would weaken the scientific validity of this: if the volunteers know their errors will be counted, they’ll make them differently surely? But I expect it to generate some bad science coverage in newspapers all the same. If anyone reading is interested in taking part, bearing in mind that it’s in Cambridge UK and as far as I know none of you reading are, and bearing in mind that there is no pay, you can apparently contact Professor Howe for more information.
Their references are: Christopher J. Howe, Adrian C. Barbrook, Matthew Spencer, Peter Robinson, Barbara Bordalejo & Linne R. Mooney, “Manuscript evolution” in Trends in Genetics Vol. 17 (Amsterdam 2001), pp. 147-152; and Adrian C. Barbrook, Christopher J. Howe, Norman Blake & Peter Robinson, “The phylogeny of the Canterbury Tales” in “Scientific Correspondence” in Nature no. 349 (London 1998), p. 839.