Polonsky Project images as a game-changer for scholarship

Professor Donald Mastronarde of the University of California, Berkeley — who is also an Oxonian, by the way (Wadham ’69) — has been poring over Greek manuscripts for about 40 years now. A pioneer of digital scholarship, particularly in the still rather inchoate field of digital critical editions, he has been regaling scholars with his progressively developing on-line edition of the Euripidean scholia since 2010. 


Scholia, which are comments added by scribes in the margins or between the lines of medieval manuscripts, often contain important information about the history of a text and its interpretation, as well as variant readings culled from now-lost manuscripts. They provide essential information to scholars interested in which words an author actually wrote, what he or she actually meant by them, or how they were interpreted through the centuries. 


While editions of scholia have always been important for classical scholarship, they were traditionally very difficult to produce, because so many disparate elements needed to be gathered out of so many different manuscripts housed in far-flung libraries. Microfilms (and other analog reproductions) were of some help; but the cramped, scholarly hands of these marginalia were often illegible in low-resolution reproductions; and it was often impossible to distinguish between the different hands which worked on each manuscript. In addition, there was always the problem of presentation, since it is always unclear what constitutes “the text” of the scholia when each manuscript gives a different set of items (though usually with some overlap).


Mastronarde’s growing on-line edition, with XML-coded text and apparatus and with filters allowing the reader to focus on the elements of interest to her, demonstrates how the problem of presentation can be solved using digital technology; indeed one can say that it is one of the few digital critical editions which truly adds value as compared to a traditional print edition. However, regarding the more fundamental difficulty of actually deciphering the texts which the editor is to process, Mastronarde has mostly had to contend with the same difficulties as his predecessors; and his discussions of manuscripts are littered with the usual complaints about illegible scripts and mediocre reproductions. 


But the situation has been improving, and it is instructive to compare the description of Vat. gr. 909 (siglum V, one of the most important Euripidean manuscripts. The full digital manuscript here) in the 2010 version of his edition, where he writes that “it has not seemed practical (or particularly useful) to try to separate out the early hand or hands which wrote the text […],” with the 2016 version, where he links to the newly minted Polonsky Project images of V. Here he has come to the conclusion that it is, on the contrary, both practical and useful to study these hands, and credits the “new images permitting study under magnification” with changing his views. We look forward to reading about the results in his forthcoming book (in the meantime he hasposted some notes on the subject), and thank him for this demonstration of how access to the high-quality Polonsky Project images can be a game-changer for scholarship.


Vat. gr. 909, f. 29r