Prior to the invention of the printing press, manuscripts of ancient texts were rewritten by hand; this practice left a great deal of room for errors, inaccurate translations, or basic changes to the original text. Even after the invention of the printed edition, errors could be made by typesetters or print shops. The study of these variations in different texts from different time periods is known as textual criticism, with the end result ideally being the reconstruction of the original text as accurately as possible. While literary criticism focuses on the meaning and significance of a piece of literature or writing, textual criticism focuses on the text itself and how it has changed over time, mapping the alterations and progression from the original copy to the current edition.
One approach to textual criticism is called eclecticism; this requires one to find multiple different copies of a source and compare them for similarities and differences. It is believed that this approach allows textual critics to come closer to the original, as the same mistakes or additions are not likely to appear in multiple copies. Stemmatics is another approach, focusing on determining the “family tree” of various sources. By linking together texts with the same errors or additions, a path of changes is likely to emerge, with the progression of copies becoming clear. Finally, copy-text editing takes the oldest available form of the source and uses other copies to determine changes or alterations. This allows for corrections to be made where parts do not make sense or where other copies have different information. Ultimately, a “critical edition” should emerge, one that includes not only the most accurate version of the source, but also the editor’s changes and rationale for making said changes. This ensures that additional scholars can review the material as time passes to maintain the accuracy and validity of the finished piece.