Plutarch’s Nose and Contemporary Editing

January 9, 2014
By Kevin Killeen

Of making many bookes there is no end, and much studie is a wearinesse of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes 12:12)


The availability of classical and renaissance texts online – whether out of copyright Loebs, the electronic ‘Renascence Editions’ or Early English Books Online – has changed the nature of reading and research. That there is no end of books may once have required a good footnote – Ecclesiastes perhaps or Montaigne – but Google is surely fit for this purpose. What then is the role of the ‘Edition’, that grand staple of scholarly output, in which obscurity is glossed and the text rendered in perfect copy? Is it to become a redundant form? Apparently not; in fact quite the contrary. This is a golden age of editing in the Renaissance: Oxford University Press have been publishing lavish editions both of established writers, Bacon, Milton, Hobbes or, in the offing, Thomas Browne, and figures who, a generation ago, barely featured on the cultural landscape, Gerrard Winstanley or Lucy Hutchinson. No doubt there is a sound set of commercial reasons here – these are priced largely for library budgets – but their existence prompts the question of what kind of annotation is necessary, when all knowledge, it seems, can be filtered so adeptly in 0.0005 seconds. And why, moreover, edit books that already exist in perfectly serviceable if slightly tatty editions? That surely, is a wearinesse of the flesh.

And yet there is good reason: the critical landscape changes; our sense of relevant context shifts, and where one scholar sees the presence of Aristotle on generation, another will sense a contemporary tract on midwifery. Annotations provide a constellation of reference, sometimes clear, sometimes speculative. Michel de Montaigne has a puckish attitude to his borrowing from other writers, his finding ideas ‘which I transplant into my own soil and confound with my own’. Sometimes, he claims, he deliberately omits the authors’ names, so that his critics are, without knowing it, attacking the classics: ‘I want them to flick Plutarch’s nose in mistake for mine and to scald themselves by insulting the Seneca in me’ (Of Books, 2.10). That scholarly nose-flicking is too rarely acknowledged as an editorial task is one thing, but there is a further point: ideas are diffuse, meandering things, and rarely have one owner. Sometimes they are in the air and sometimes there is evidently a book open on a writer’s table, to which we can point. Only to stir at immediate mimicry – when a text shares its wording with a source – is to ignore how an idea can percolate through an era, or how a writer in Montaigneian fashion ploughs thoughts into his own soil and ‘confounds’ them.

This question of annotative breadth is at issue is my own work, as part of a large team editing The Complete Works of Thomas Browne (OUP). While any university library is likely to have multiple copies of multiple editions of Browne, the standard works (ed. Keynes) has few annotations and the single editions of, for instance Religio Medici (1642), are only lightly annotated. However, this is not the case with Browne’s most extensive and complex work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), a cornucopia of trivia, error, science, rhetorical panache and immoderate pedantry. It is a great and too-little-known work. It was, however, edited with brilliant scholarly annotations by Robin Robbins in 1982. The edition runs to almost 1,200 pages, half of which are scholarly notes. They are invariably accurate and extremely thorough. What could be the point of annotating the work again?

There are two main reasons. The first is the major shift, we might say revolution, in the ‘history of science’ over the intervening decades, from a discipline which saw its main task as discerning the seeds of modernity, to a practice far more ready to accept the curious amalgams of natural philosophy that renaissance thinkers produced. In few cases does the shift in historiography invalidate the sources Robbins identifies, but in many cases it produces gaps, at times gaping, in the relevant contexts and, such that a new edition will look very different. Alongside this, the development of book history and book theory have changed presumptions about the material nature of the book, and how we understand the author’s interventions in the publication process, and again, this will involve a set of insights on the material history of Browne’s works that was in effect, unavailable in 1982.

Editing remains an important stock-in-trade of academia, because, as a forthcoming conference has it, the edition is an argument. The two-day conference in July 2014 at Queen Mary, University of London, will deal with editing and editorial practice and will feature many of the editors involved in the recent surge of scholarly editing.‘The Edition as Argument’: Details can be found at:

Kevin Killeen


Montaigne: The Complete Essays, trans M.A. Screech, (Penguin, 1991), p. 458

The Complete Works of Thomas Browne (c. 2016-18), general editor, Claire Preston.

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