3 December 2019

Corrupted and Copied

Hilaire Belloc, "On Footnotes," Selected Essays (London: Methuen & Co., 1948), pp. 173-174:
He [one of Belloc's friends] was reading up an economic question, and he found himself perpetually referred to a pamphlet of the late seventeenth century wherein was a certain economic statement upon the point of his research. Book after book referred him to this supposed statement, but he being, as I have said, a learned, civilized, and ironical man (though too sparing in wine) concluded from his general knowledge — and very few learned men have general knowledge — that, in the words of the Old Kent Road murderer, "There must be some mistake." He couldn’t believe any seventeenth-century pamphlet had said what this oft-quoted pamphlet was made responsible for.

He proceeded to look up the pamphlet, the references to which followed him about like a dog through all his research. He found there were two copies — and only two. One was in a certain public library, the other in a rich man’s house. The public library was far off, and the rich man was nearer by — an hour’s journey in the train. So he wrote to the rich man and asked him whether he might look at this pamphlet in the library which his ancestors had accumulated, but to which the rich man had added nothing, being indeed indifferent to reading and writing. The rich man very politely answered that his library had unfortunately been burnt down, and that the pamphlet had been burnt with it. Whereupon the learned man was at the pains of taking a long journey to consult the copy kept in the public library. He discovered two things: (a) that the copy had never been used at all — it was uncut; (b) that the references always given had hardly any relation to the actual text. Then did he, as is the habit of all really learned people, go and waste a universe of energy in working out the textual criticism of the corruption, and he proved that the last time anyone had, with his own eyes, really seen that particular passage, instead of merely pretending that he had seen it, was in the year 1738 — far too long ago! Ever since then the reference had been first corrupted and then copied and recopied in its corrupted form by the University charlatans

William Hogarth, Scholars at a Lecture (1736)