Let me introduce you to one of the greatest textual critics of all time: Sir Walter Wilson Greg.
Greg’s grandfather founded The Economist, and it was generally assumed that Greg would one day become the magazine’s Editor. This never ended up happening, though; after graduating from Trinity College Cambridge Greg pursued independent scholarship, publishing articles analyzing Renaissance texts and later becoming one of the most recognized Shakespeare scholars of the 20th century. He also dabbled in bibliography, paying special attention to the area of textual criticism, and his outstanding contributions to this field landed him the Bibliographical Society’s Gold Medal in 1935.
What really pushed Greg into the limelight, though, was his publication of “The Rational of the Copy-Text” in the 1950-1951 volume of Studies in Bibliography. This article addresses the confusion between texts’ absolute and relative authorities, and emphasizes the dangers of editors sticking religiously to just one copy of a text. “The copy-text should govern (generally) in the matter of accidentals,” Greg suggests, “but… the choice between substantive readings belongs to the general theory of textual criticism and lies altogether beyond the narrow principle of the copy-text. Thus it may happen that in a critical edition the text rightly chosen as copy may not by any means be the one that supplies most substantive readings in cases of variation.” In short, textual critics should be critical, and shouldn’t just adhere to one text because it is deemed authoritative. “The tyranny of the copy-text,” the article ultimately argues, can be overcome by good judgement and editorial choice.
Not everyone agreed with Greg but his piece sparked a lot of discussion and debate in the bibliographic community regarding the importance (or lack of importance) of the copy-text and how it should be used. Some people’s notions of textual criticism were turned upside down. Some people’s notions of textual criticism were forced to be expanded upon. Some people’s notions of textual criticism were reaffirmed. No matter who you were, if you were involved in the field of textual criticism you were affected in some way or another by Greg’s article.
And this was Greg’s intention, as he notes when he writes: “I began this discussion in the hope of clearing my own mind as well as others’ on a rather obscure though not unimportant matter of editorial practice. I have done something to sort out my own ideas: others must judge for themselves. If they disagree, it is up to them to maintain some different point of view. My desire is rather to provoke discussion that to lay down the law.” And provoke discussion he did. Indeed, the discussion e provoked continues today, and will continue as long as textual criticism exists.
If you’re interested in reading more of Greg’s works, check out archive.org.