OSU Professor a Detective in
Search of Medieval Writings
(April 25, 2002)
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Bill Eichenberger, Dispatch Book Critic
detective Philip Marlowe takes a case, odds are he finds out who has killed whom
and why. Usually he gets the girl, though he doesn’t get to keep her.
professor Frank Coulson takes a case, odds are he finds out whether a manuscript
has scholarly significance. Usually, there are no girls.
think of what I do as detective work,’’ Coulson said recently from his
office at Ohio State University, where he teaches medieval and classical Latin
and paleography. “I think of it as solving little mysteries.’’
intrepid gumshoe -- “maybe a cross between an archaeologist and Monsieur
Poirot,’’ he said with a laugh -- Coulson has “crawled through’’ about
90 libraries in western Europe and the United States and has unearthed more than
120 previously unknown copies of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
will talk about medieval Latin manuscripts tonight as part of the Aldus
Society’s History of Text series.)
I examine a manuscript I want to know when, where, how and why it was produced.
And under what circumstances,’’ he said.
times, when Coulson visits, say, the library at the Vatican, he will be the
first person to handle a particular manuscript in a century or more. A common
misconception: Because these manuscripts are so old, researchers know everything
not like that at all. What excites me about these (medieval) manuscripts is how
little we know about them. There’s a huge amount of uncataloged
one manuscript may be quite like another, still there can be crucial differences
that can change the way one thinks about a text such as The Metamorphoses.
don’t know if the scribe was a dolt or a dunce. You don’t know what sort of
errors he might have introduced into the text,’’ Coulson said. “No single
manuscript will give you a pure copy of the text.’’
are able, by identifying errors common to different texts, to group those texts
into families. Further work along the same line can move scholars, so the theory
goes, closer to the original text.
call errors spread among various manuscript families contamination. One scribe
has looked at a manuscript that included an error and imported that error into
his manuscript,’’ Coulson said.
muddies the waters.’’
knew why he solved mysteries, telling a cop buddy once, “I’m a romantic,
Bernie. I hear voices crying in the night, and I go to see what’s the
knows why he solves mysteries, too.
love bringing this material to light and making it accessible to scholars,’’
he needn’t travel to Florence or Paris to make a big find. Not long ago he
rediscovered, in a manuscript in the OSU Library’s Rare Books Room, several
lost poems by the 17th-century Italian Ippolito Grassetti.
Grassetti is a minor figure. And some of the cataloging Coulson has done with
manuscripts of The Metamorphoses may seem almost clerical.
many scholarly discoveries that seem minor at the time,’’ Coulson said,
“may, in fact, be far more dramatic in their impact when one steps back and
looks at the larger picture.’’
is, by necessity, provisional. That is what keeps scholars in business. The more
information is unearthed, the more an understanding of the past deepens.
scholars who studied Ovid’s influence on Chaucer, for instance, tended to view
their subject only through “the Moralized Ovid,’’ or a Christian
interpretation of The Metamorphoses.
my research has demonstrated there were multifarious ways or levels of
interpreting the poem even in Chaucer’s day.’’
recently won Ohio State’s Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching. His
students now find a more sober scholar than they would have in his fiery youth.
was attracted by Catullus, who was writing about loss and love in a very
emotional way,’’ Coulson said. “Only later did I turn to Horace. I think,
as one gets older, one can appreciate the subtleties of a writer like Horace,
who is -- how shall I say it? -- less emotionally charged than Catullus.’’
make movies out of guys like Philip Marlowe. But excepting Umberto Eco’s The
Name of the Rose -- “The movie is unrealistic, from a scholar’s point of
view,’’ Coulson said -- scribes and the manuscripts they produced are hardly
the stuff of Hollywood.
much less so the work of the scholar, trailing in the footsteps of the
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