Defining Scholarly Editions, pt.1: Critical vs. enriched

Within „Defining Scholarly Editions“, I want to open a new section in our blog which offers the opportunity to discuss the theoretical definition and the different understanding of scholarly editions and related questions such as “the role of the editor”, “the tasks of a commentary,” and many more. I hope that we can start an open and fruitful discussion where everyone can publish her|his thoughts on scholarly editing. Comments, suggestions and critiques are very welcome!

The edition’s key feature

As I am not yet ready to share my still a bit unordered thoughts on the definition of scholarly editions with the rest of the world, I will start this section not immediately with a completely new definition of scholarly editions, but rather comment on an excerpt from Patrick Sahle’s [1] definition, which states:

A scholarly edition is an information resource which offers a critical representation of (normally) historical documents or texts. [2]

Thinking about the essential characteristic of a scholarly edition I decided to replace “critical” with “scholarly enriched,” which makes the definition look like this:

A scholarly edition is an information resource which offers a scholarly enriched representation of primarily historical documents or texts. [3]

Why not critical?

I am not sure if Patrick Sahle makes use of the term “critical” as it is traditionally used in the universe of scholarly editing; namely, in the sense of “text-critical,” or if he uses it in the true sense of the word [4]. The latter would be problematic anyway, as the term “critical” in the context of scholarly editing – at least in my opinion – through its close connection to the editing method of textual criticism is kind of ”occupied” and could therefore be misleading [5].

To me Patrick’s definition implies – even if he doesn’t intend it for sure – that (a) to be termed a scholarly edition, it has to have critical representation of the text and that (b) the “critical representation” – as what is really offered by a scholarly edition – is its key feature.

About (a) we don’t have to discuss, as we all know that there are scholarly editions that treat the text not in a critical way (and this maybe for good reasons) but offer a very rich annotation of a different kind and therefor deserve to be termed “scholarly”. More interesting is (b), the question of the key feature of a scholarly edition.

Scholarly editing – what is it all about?

I think the decisive characteristic of a scholarly edition is not the critical representation (however it was intended by Patrick, “critical” as a definition does not meet the point for me anyway), but that it offers something more compared to the original source, and this added value serves to bridge different kind of distances [6] and gaps of understanding between the edited material and today’s recipient. This enrichment of the original source has a communicative function and can either be an analysis of the text’s constitution, or the editor’s annotation (e.g. related to the content), and it can be even both.

However, the “added value for the sake of understanding” to me is the key feature, and rather than describe it with the term “critical,” I would propose the term “scholarly enriched” instead.



[1] Patrick Sahle is the scholar from the field of (digital) scholarly editing with his work I am most familiar with and for who’s research I have great respect; therefore I will probably refer very often to him now and in my future blog posts.

[2] Patrick Sahle in collaboration with Georg Vogeler and the members of the IDE; Version 1.1, June 2014 [ [30.6.2014|19:50].

[3] If a native speaker has a better solution for “scholarly enriched” please step forward! Two times “scholarly” in one sentence doesn’t sound good. I even thought about “research-specific enriched”, “research-related enriched”. Any suggestions?

[4] “critical, adj.”. OED Online. June 2014. Oxford University Press. [30.6.2014|19:50]. – the second definition would be the appropriate one.

[5] What do the natives say about that?

[6] The most common distance is the historical one, but there are even others; e.g. cultural or linguistic.


I am based at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities in Graz. I graduated in Editorial Philology in Berlin where I worked in the field of digital scholarly editing of mss and prints. I am interested in modern ms and print studies, theories and concepts of writing, text and editing theories, media transitions at the turn of the ct. 19|20.

17 Responses

  1. Frederike Neuber says:

    I am happy the discussion continues and thanks to the latest commentators Elena and Elli.
    It seems the discussion has drifted away from my initial question on the appropriate terminology to define a scholarly edition, namely the (for me) problematic use of the term “critical”.
    So to sum up: when we consider a scholarly edition not necessarily an edition which treats the text’s constitution in a critical way, is the term “critical” appropriate to define the crucial feature of an edition or would it be better to use a more inclusive term like “enriched” which triggers of less association to text criticism?

    • again, Frederike: I don’t share your problems with the word “critical” since for me it is a very broad term describing ALL scholarly reflective activities. Critical is defined by its opposite: uncritical = mechanic. That’s why an edition is distinguished from a mechanical reproduction. The former is critical the latter is uncritical. To me it’s as simple as that.
      We at the IDE just recently started to use the word “enriched” edition to mark a certain subtype of digital edition which focuses not so much on the philological constitution of a text but on the enrichment of a text with additional information (like identifying named or unnamed entities, comment on difficult words and passages etc.)

      • Frederike Neuber says:

        Thanks Patrick for your untiring perseverance in answering my questions 🙂

        Your understanding of “critical” was clear to me before, I am interested in Elli’s and Elena’s opinion on the term and I have not yet lost hope that a English native-speaker will join the discussion, I didn’t know that they are so shy..

  2. Elli Bleeker says:

    Dear all, thank you for the comments, it is indeed a pleasure to read. I am glad the discussion continues, for it seems we have quite a lot to consider.

    First, let me be clear. Taking the role of the devil’s advocate can be a means of sharpening the focus of a discussion. I consider it a useful way of making explicit some ideas that might be considered ‘generally accepted’, especially because we come from different fields. In other words, to know what page we are on. By no means is it my intention to disrespect different opinions. On the contrary!

    In terms of practices: I completely agree with Elena and Patrick (and all other wise Italians and/or Germans): any edition is a hypothesis. I think we can generally agree on that, actually. The methodology and objectives depend upon the editor’s hypothesis: a historic-critical edition will focus on other elements than a genetic edition. By describing this focus, the editor justifies his practice –whatever that may be. With all this “crossing international and methodological boundaries”, it is no longer enough to merely name the editorial tradition followed. It seems that what matters most nowadays is the practice. To paraphrase my supervisor: stop defining; start working!

    When it comes to a discussion about practices: rightly because of the different traditions, I still feel that it is almost impossible to agree upon editorial concepts. But if the goal is not general agreement, but reflection and signaling misleading associations: hear hear! Jerome McGann would definitely agree upon that: “It is crucial to be clear about what is involved and how we want to shape the changes that are under way […] We will not design and build effective digital tools and archival repositories -a task we now clearly have before us […]- unless we work from an adequate understanding of our paper-based inheritance.”

  3. Elena says:

    Hi all, it’s a pleasure to read this fruitful discussion!
    I’m not saying anything new, but I would like to come back on some mentioned points.
    As Frederike points out, there are some “national traditions” that guide our practices and make us formalize concepts in a certain way. Maybe the italian way, if there is one (and I’m referring mainly to medieval philology), in the last decades can be seen as a “weird mix”, as Tessa said; continuing the Lachmannian (not originally Lachmanian) tradition, taking into account Bedier’s “revolution”, passing throug Contini’s variant criticism and adding re-new attention to codicological and paleographical features in what is sometimes called “material philology”.
    What I learnt in my very first year at university and what fascinated me is to consider the text as a problem (and not as a factual data). Sometimes later I found out what every italian scholars will quote (and if I’m not wrong Elena Pierazzo did in her successful attempt to summarize textual criticism at MMSDA): “a scholarly edition is, as every scientific act, a mere working hypothesis”
    [G. Contini, Ricordo di Joseph Bédier [1939], re-published in Esercizî di lettura. Nuova edizione aumentata di «Un anno di letteratura», Torino 1974, p. 369: “un’edizione critica è, come ogni atto scientifico, una mera ipotesi di lavoro, la più soddisfacente (ossia economica) che colleghi in sistema i dati” [a scholarly edition is, as every scientific act, a mere working hypothesis, the most satisfactory (i.e., economical) that connects datas into a system].

    Instictively I would say that the focus of a critical edition must be the text: negative or positive apparatus with discussion of problematic points, notes on the witnesses even if it is just one, genetical notes in other cases … everything regarding the text’s constitution.
    But this of course doesn’t mean that editor’s annotations, explanations and commentaries are not important! They are an essential part of a scholarly edition, justifying a certain representation and filling the gap you all mentioned. So far I think I can consider a scholarly edition something with at least minimum notes on text’s constitution and at least minimum notes on contents.
    But this is not really the point.
    The main point probably is that an editor has to EXPLAIN her/his choices, her/his HYPOTHESIS. In this way she/he gives to further scholars the possibility to USE what she/he has done (and speaking generally, this lacks even more in digital editions).

    By the way, going back to the old old times that Frederike mentioned … glossae on ancient manuscrits consist both in “textual annotations”, as variants copied from another witness, corrections or discussion on it, and “content annotations”, as explanations, interpretations, added informations … Not easy to be that kind of expert!
    And, always going back to the old times, philology has been seen as a auxiliary art, that gives critics and mainly historians “good” materials to work on. Of course I don’t like the negative judgement inside ‘auxiliary’, but I do like to imagine editors as workers dealing with materials and not just with ideas.

    • in replying to Elena …
      – “working hypothesis” – I liked and stressed in my own work the notion of the edited text as “Lesevorschlag” = “reading proposal”. The only thing an editor can do is to make a proposal on how a text may be read. I’m not sure who coined that, but probably it can be traced …
      – “the focus of a critical edition must be the text” – but does that help us? What is that text? I think the focus of an edition must be the research questions an edition can help to answer. Historians for example are often not so much interested in “the text” but in what it tells us – and that may essentially lie in it’s material and visual setup.

      • Elena says:

        Thanks for your comment Patrick. If you trace the history of Lesevorschlag let us know, maybe Contini took the expression from some german wise man, as sometimes happened 🙂
        Totally agree about material and visual setup, I referred to it talking about “notes on the witnesses even if it is just one”, that is for sure not the right or clear expression.
        Hope the discussion keeps going and continue to learn from and share with you all guys*

  4. Elli Bleeker says:

    Indeed an interesting blog post as well as discussion topic, Frederike.

    I wondered, why exactly do you propose we discuss the definitions of critical and scholarly editions? What is the objective? Is it your intention to describe the different understandings of editorial activities, merely to sketch the status quo of the field? Do you mean to open up the discussion, or are you trying to narrow it down? Is it your goal to find one conclusive definition for a critical / scholarly enriched / … edition?

    Forgive me if I am a little devil’s advocate here. Yet, a part from it being a great means to describe the current state of the art, there seems little use in trying to pin down a definition. Of course it made sense when there was some controversy around the concept. That is, in 1996 Peter Schillingsburg called for a remediation of the terms “critical edition” and “scholarly edition”, because of the general disagreement over the interpretation. Indeed, John Bryant refers to these difficulties in 2002. And so on, and so on.

    Now we write 2014. Patrick Sahle suggests a very broad definition of ‘critical’. He offers not so much a new definition as well as an exhaustive list of editorial activities that could all be considered critical in one way or another. You suggest we use a complete new term instead of a new definition, but you seem to agree with Patrick on the substance and interpretation of the term. It amounts to the same thing.

    I presume you did some in-depth research before writing this post. However, Patrick’s “suggestions for further reading” indicate that there are always more scholars who propose a slightly different definition. All seem to agree that “critical” implies so much more than it once used to.

    So aren’t we past defining? Or, let me phrase it differently: will there ever be a moment when we are done with it? So would it then not be sufficient to consider the literature for your theoretical framework and methodology, and from there on simply refer to existing definitions?

    • Georg Vogeler says:

      Thanks, Ellie for taking the role of the advocate’s devil – as you might have to encounter critics on the position, in particular when you phrase your critics in a blank manner. 🙂 Coming from a German scholarly tradition and being a Historian I see Frederikes point: In the German speaking area the major text book teaching is still that “Wissenschaftliche Edition” (“Scholarly edition”) sounds like “Kritische Edition” (“Critical edition”) sounds like “Historisch-kritische Ausgabe” (“textual criticism based edition/Lachmannian Method”). I’m sure, all of the DiXiT-fellows are much more advanced and thus I would be curious, if they (and even you, Ellie) have encountered the same problem as Frederike has: How close is the connection between “critical” and “text criticism” among practising editors (in particular non-digital)? Would “enriched representation” be a better choice to mark the difference?

    • Frederike Neuber says:

      Thanks for your comment Elli.
      This blog is supposed to be a discussion forum, so my first “goal” is to create some thoughts-exchange between the participants and I expect for me personally, to benefit and learn from other’s opinions.

      My second “goal” is not to discuss the definition of “critical” and “scholarly edition” but to reflect about the appropriateness of the term “critical” in a definition of scholarly editions and to discuss possible misleading associations it might trigger of (like e.g. for me, and I consider myself quite familiar with editing-terms). I am simply interested how others feel about “critical”, especially non-Germans.

      Besides consulting existing literature (yes, I do) and referring to it, I like to make up even my own ideas, and to have open discussions with people from different backgrounds (and countries, especially when it is about terminology) respecting different opinions and understandings. For me, the controversy around the definition of (digital) scholarly editions isn’t finished, not even in 2014 –
      rather the opposite: e.g. new edition-concepts like social-editing projects put in question the role and the understanding of the editor as someone who makes “critical” choices; digital libraries and other forms of digital cultural heritage editions show certain intersections with scholarly editions which need to be examined, and so on. These are just two examples of many. There is still a lot to discuss and I like it (my third and primary “goal”).

  5. I choose the term “critical representation” to say exactly what Friederike wants to express: that an edition is more than just a reproduction, that it adds something, that it enriches the representation, that it bridges a gap or distance of understanding.

    Historically, in the development of my definition, in the beginning “critical” has been a desperate attempt to translate “erschließen”. But over the years I started to like “critical” – of course as an extreme broad term. As I wrote in an forthcoming article, by critical I mean … “Second: critical. […] we have to start with a open and wide notion of critical. We cannot constrain our understanding to the most prominent exponent of criticism, which is textual criticism. Regarding editions, we have to take into account that there exist as well historic criticism, bibliographic criticism, material criticism, visual criticism and other forms of criticism. In short, criticism must stand for all processes that engage in a critical or reflective way—that is, on the basis of a scholarly agenda—with the material in question and help in opening it up. Criticism as a practice and a process may take different forms. Think of the rules that are applied in the transcription of a document. While the transcription itself is a representation, the specification of rules and their application make this a critical process. Identifying structures, named entities or other objects of interest and making them explicit, e.g. by annotation, is yet another form of criticism. Judgments about punctuation, orthography, wording, corrections and emendations are typical tasks of textual criticism and are sometimes seen as the highest form of philology. In addition, free or formalized descriptions of the documents, their texts and their treatment within an edition are the backbones for the edition’s authority and reliability for its further scholarly usage. Finally, a critical attitude is required to decide with which additional material, to what extend and in what form an edited text should be contextualized in order to make it more understandable and accessible. To sum this up, we may take the word critical as a container for all those activities that apply scholarly knowledge and reasoning in the process of reproducing documents and transforming a document or text into an edition. ”

    Please take into consideration the work of Mats Dahlström as well: when he talks about “critical digitization” – I think we are very much in line with our notions of “critical”.

    The idea that an edition always has the two sides of “gain of information” and “loss of information” is quite old. See my books, part 2, chapter 2.1, paragraph “Informationsverlust”, pp. 135f with references to
    – Kropač, Gain et perte d’information (1988)
    – Steding, Warum noch drucken? (2001), S. 151
    – Steding, Computer-Based Scholarly Editions (2002), S. 155ff
    – Perstling, Darstellung (2007), S. 517ff
    – Nowviskie, Notes Toward a Dissertation (o.J.)
    (resolve references with my bibliography)
    (and if you dig the web, this omniscient waste dump, you find some extremely old and embarrassing phrases from me back from 1997 when I was young and unworried)

    • Frederike Neuber says:

      Hi Patrick, thanks for commenting. Summarized, we attribute a scholarly edition the same key feature terming it with different expressions. That’s a good thing – for me.

      After your explanation I am a bit more convinced of the use of “critical” in your definition. I already supposed, that you mean it in the true sense of the word applied to an editor’s work. But some doubt of its appropriate use remains; I will think about it. Anyway, thanks for your detailed explanation!

  6. Tessa Gengnagel says:

    Very interesting post! Lots of food for thought. My first instinct – without knowing Patrick’s thoughts on the topic at all – is that “critical representation” means the representation that is chosen by the scholar as a result of critical reflection. As there is always a decision involved, whether conscious or subconsious, I feel like it places an emphasis on the method by which the scholar arrived at the representation of the (text) witnesses/the material. In German, I wouldn’t feel like “kritisch” is occupied by either “Textkritik” or “Historisch-kritische Ausgabe” other than a certain type of Kritik being common to all types of scholarly editions (at least I’m not sure if I would classify an edition that lacks an apparatus criticus as scholarly unless there is only one witness or another good reason inherent in the material; otherwise it’d just be a “Leseausgabe”, edition meant for reading, not scholarly consumption).

    Having said that, I think you make a good argument for the importance of scholarly enrichment. A representation always offers something other while running the reductionist risk of offering less and by placing the emphasis on the scholarly enrichment, “bridging the gaps” (that open up through distance in time, space, culture, language, you name it), you nicely counteract this.

    I would now be very interested in how the native English speakers view the use of “critical” because I have a feeling it might be more problematic than in German though I wouldn’t know why…

    • Frederike Neuber says:

      Thank you for your comment Tessa and for introducing the discussion.

      I think about Patrick’s intention you are absolutely right. I didn’t want to presume that he uses critical as text-critical, rather I wanted to take his definition as a starting point to discuss about the problems associated with the term “critical” when defining scholarly editions. With “enrichment” I tried to propose a less ambigous and a more appropriate expression for the kind of representation an edition is.

      About your comment in the brackets:
      In German there is actually the distinction between three types of editions: (1) historical-critical edition (historisch-kritische Edition), (2) study edition (Studienausgabe), and (3) the reading edition (Leseausgabe). Considering all editions without an apparatus criticus a priori the third and lowest type, the Leseausgabe, seems not right in my understanding of the term “scholarly”; because: a text-critical study of a primary source does not require more (or even less) scholarly ability than an detailed, well-researched commentary related to the content.

      I think many scholars – especially medievalists practicing textual criticism – certainly share your doubts whether a non-critical edition can be scholarly at all. Maybe this is owed to the (far far away) beginnings of editing, when there was only one type of edition, the historical-critical one.
      Or maybe this is owed to a terminology which is still too focused on text-critical aspects as characteristics of an edition (like “critical”!), excluding (and in a certain sense even depreciating) other forms of scholarly editions.

      • Tessa Gengnagel says:

        Ah, I see now what you mean! I would agree that an edition without an apparatus criticus does not have to be a Leseausgabe and without scholarly merit – certainly, I would place as much importance on the Sachkommentar and the Similienapparat etc. When I learned -very basic- edition theory in my medieval Latin studies those went hand in hand with the apparatus criticus anyway so when I think of him, all the other commentary is entailed; but I agree that a lot of scholars rate the textual criticism higher than other commentary for historical reasons, probably, and that’s unfortunate.

        Still, when I think of medieval works, I’m interested in all of the witnesses and their transmission and how the text changed depending on the setting and the purpose ascribed to it so an edition that were to present only one witness where there are several if not many, albeit enriched with commentary, would be lacking (at least if it were trying to present a work, not just a manuscript), in my opinion, unless the commentary were to factor in historical-critical considerations even without actual textual criticism. Does that make sense? (Actually, are we talking about Lachmann when we’re talking about textual criticism? Because I don’t care about a construct that’s “autorenorientiert” instead of “text-/überlieferungsorientiert” and I don’t believe in “Fehlerbereinigung”; what we learned was apparently a weird mix of textual criticism and new philology influences.)

        I think the major hurdle here is that I can’t think of an edition that didn’t have a critical approach but sufficient scholarly commentary. Do you have examples for this in mind?

        (Also, the more I think about it, the more I agree that “critical” is “vorbelastet” (occupied) in the context of scholarly editions and introducing a new term makes sense to put things into a different perspective.)

        • Frederike Neuber says:

          I need to correct or in fact add one thing that I forgot in my previous comment: The first type of the German classification of “edition” includes both the historical-critical edition as well as the “wissenschaftliche Edition” (scholarly edition) as two coexistent types (which of course have overlaps). In English the term for both would be “scholarly edition”.

          To answer your question: I think it depends in each case on the material and even more on the research scope, whether a text-critical analysis should be applied, but: it should not generally be made the constitutive feature of scholarly editions!

          For me “to examine a text in a critical way” (always in the edition-universe) means, that the edition is focused on the text’s constitution and its gestalt, on “what is actually there”, and that further research and interpretation should build on that. Btw, textual criticism is not the only “text-critical method”, even critique génétique deals mainly with the constitution and the materiality of the text.

          An example of a scholarly, non critical-edition, is, recently reviewed by Patrick Sahle in RIDE ( In Patrick’s review you will find good reasons to call it “scholarly” (and he does it too).

          • Tessa Gengnagel says:

            Thanks for link and I agree with everything that you’ve said. I wonder, coming from a medieval background where textual criticism (entailing all text-critical methods, as I always take the term) is a crucial way to look at the transmission, whether this focus shift away from textual criticism as seen in would be as easily applicable across the bank for editions of medieval works.

            Turning it around, if an edition were to solely focus on textual criticism, would that be sufficient enrichment (if scholarly enrichment were to be the focus) to call it a scholarly edition? Obviously text-critical methods are scholarly but are they not so much adding value as constituting it, not so much enriching the representation as simply representing albeit filtered through an editorial prism? I feel like I’m way off the mark with this but I’ll throw it out there anyway.

            Thanks for the discussion btw, it’s been very interesting.

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