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What was the Roman Table of Contents? Making meaning from miscellany in ancient and early modern paratext

Joseph A. Howley

Columbia University

In classical antiquity, “miscellaneous” texts were sometimes accompanied by a kind of paratext known today as a Table of Contents: a sequential list of titles or descriptions of the chapters, essays or sections that make up the work.  Modern study of paratext traditionally proceeds from studying books themselves, but no ancient manuscripts of these particular texts survive, which seems to foreclose a materially-oriented study of their nature and function.  I argue that we can circumvent this evidentiary gap: internal evidence of the texts and paratexts themselves, combined with codicological and bibliographic study of medieval and early modern editions of those texts, allows us to reconstruct the relationship between text and paratext.  Paratext, we will see, served to guide not only navigation but also interpretation of ancient miscellaneous texts.

Implicit in the un-genre that is “miscellany” is the possibility of disordered reading: that the text is sufficiently discontinuous, and discrete and self-contained in its internal units, that those units might be read 1) in any order or 2) in part rather than in whole.  These phenomena have long been assumed to pertain to the epistolary and poetic collection, but prose miscellany has languished as a category of despair not quite worthy of literary attention or study.  Instead, texts like Pliny’s Natural History and Gellius’s Attic Nights have often been considered “technical”, their miscellany explained by a priori assumptions about genre (but see Doody 2010 on Pliny) and Epictetus’s Discourses, edited by Arrian, has not received any substantial study of its form or paratext.  Recent work on the Roman paratext (Jansen 2014) has largely avoided navigational devices (but see Gibson 2014,  Butler 2014).

Some ancient authors give instructions for their Tables of Contents (Riggsby 2007); some tables flirt with unreliability (e.g. Gellius) while others are more opaque in purpose (e.g. Epictetus).  Two questions emerge about the ancient table of contents: 1) was it meant to be used, as the modern Table of Contents, to navigate the work? And 2) were the lemmata presented separately, at the head of the work, or — as in modern printed editions — alongside the relevant chapter, like titles?  I will first outline these questions with evidence from the Classical sources.  Then, with a brief outline of the material evidence and several specific examples, I will show how post-Classical editions of these texts can be used to reconstruct answers to those questions.

Medieval MSS show changes in how Tables were presented over centuries.  But the first century of print alone offers a rich body of evidence for reader-response.  When printers took up classical texts and paratext, no conventions yet existed for printing such devices. Of 8 editions of Gellius printed in the incunabular period (before 1501), no single edition makes the same choices about the location of the Table or its integration with the main text.  In some editions, (e.g. 1469 Rome, 1477 Venice), the Table is printed on separate gatherings of paper, meaning readers and binders could—and did—move the Table around in the book, in addition to augmenting and annotating it. Not only each edition, but in some cases each copy of an edition constitutes a point of material reception with the interpretive question posed by the ancient Table of Contents: “what is this for and where does it go?”  In the sixteenth century, new paratexts began to creep in and supplant original, Classical ones, indicating the ways modern readers had new demands of the texts that put them in tension—but also sometimes agreement—with the Classical authors’ programs.

By studying material instantiations of Classical paratext, we see that miscellaneous meaning is created at the point of material reception: that navigational paratext did not resolve or simplify the inherent miscellany of miscellany, but rather enhanced and abetted it, demanding that readers forge their own way through the text, whether on the author’s terms or not.

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Characterizing the Ancient Miscellany

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