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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Textual Evidence (The Life of Texts) - Public Lecture series: Shaping the Word: form and content in early Gospel Books

27th October 2015, 18:00 to 19:30, Learning Centre, Palace Green Library, Professor Francis Watson

This illustrated lecture will trace the development from early papyrus gospel books, typically containing a single gospel, to the elaborate four gospel codices that begin to emerge from the 4th century onwards, which often include extensive artwork and other supplementary material. Locally produced gospel books such as the “Lindisfarne Gospels” share traditions of formatting and artistry with books from as far afield as Ethiopia and Armenia. The question is how this supplementary material was intended to shape the way the gospel texts were understood.

This lecture will be chaired by Professor Lewis Ayres.


This lecture is free and open to all.


Directions to Learning Centre, Palace Green Library

Map - Palace Green Library is denoted as building No. 22


On this Public Lecture series...


Texts have lives of their own, which develop both in the run-up to their completion and in subsequent dissemination.

Texts take shape over time, are potentially perfectible ad infinitum and attain their distinctive features through progressive improvements, but also afterthoughts, reconsiderations and even failed attempts. The traces left by this process provide valuable insights into authorial strategies and modes of composition, while casting considerable light on the rationale underpinning the final outcome.

The life of texts continues to unfold after authors have released them or lost control over them, as the vitality of a text very much depends on its being transmitted and made available to a variety of audiences across space and time, regardless of its form or shape. However, the longer the chain of transmission, the greater the chances for the textual message to be altered (deliberately or not) or even lost. Breaks in the continuity of textual transmission can be occasioned by a variety of causes – a change of script or mode of writing; the transition from one form of textual layout or physical support to another; innovations introduced in the mechanics of transmission (e.g., from manuscript to printed or digitized text); the adoption of a new notation system; a mere turn in trends of fashion. At that point, what appears to be no longer immediately comprehensible or accessible may need to be “translated” into more manageable modes of presentation.

Such rough transitions have meant either death or survival for many works. Some would reach the following stage in piecemeal fashion or disfigured by errors; others still, despite looking complete, owe their integrity to the ingenuity and painstaking work of editors. No work of Homer, Dante or Shakespeare survives in utterly dependable textual witnesses. Editions of non-Western masterpieces often rely on notions of textual authority which are at variance with the ones traditionally accepted in the West. Complete scores of symphonies, sonatas or choral pieces may occasionally result from the editorial reconstruction of the surviving instrumental or vocal parts.

This series of lectures aims to tackle an ever-pressing issue common to most civilizations: the need for preserving the written legacy of peoples and nations as faithfully as possible, while ensuring its accessibility to future generations. Given by acknowledged experts in their field including among others Professor Richard Gameson (Durham University); Professor Barbara Graziosi (Durham University); Professor Francis Watson (Durham University); Professor Daniel Newman (Durham University); Dr Annalisa Cipollone (Durham University);and Professor Carlo Vecce (Instituto Universitario Orientale, Naples); the lectures are intended for a non-specialist audience and will address influential works in light of the textual evidence on which they rest. It is argued that an awareness of what the ‘life of texts’ entails is essential for a critical understanding of the transmission of culture.

For more information on this series of events, please click on this link.


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