Friday, May 22, 2015

A Time When "Vel" Looked Like "Ut"

About a week ago, I wrote that I had noticed something unexpected in the surviving copies of the original, 1215 version of Magna Charta -- that at a couple of important points in the document, the word "ut" appears where "vel" has always been thought to have been used.  I found it difficult to believe that the world had failed to notice this in the nearly eight hundred years since Magna Charta was negotiated, approved, and first published, but every source that I had checked (other than the originals -- or so it appeared -- and with the additional exception of two nineteenth century German-language books on law) used "vel" where those original copies appeared (to me) unmistakably to read "ut".  As a result, even though I continued to feel as though I must somehow have overlooked or misunderstood something, I published the post about all of this.

I continued to look over the documents for the several days that followed, looking into everything I noticed along the way that I thought might make sense of this.  Then, a few days ago, I noticed that what I had read as "ut" appeared at many other points throughout Magna Charta.  Comparing again the surviving original copies of Magna Charta (using scanned, high-quality images of those copies) with what has traditionally been regarded as the true wording of its 1215 edition, I found that what I had believed to be the word "ut" appears in the original copies at each of the nearly one hundred points where "vel" is supposed to be.  Up to that point, I had been nearly certain that the word in question is "ut", even though I realized how unlikely it is for something like this to be overlooked by the entire world for such a long time.  The word happens to look exactly like a "u" followed by a "t", which one would ordinarily be justified in assuming is the Latin word "ut".  However, once I saw that the word appears in the original copies in all of the nearly one hundred places where "vel" should be, it became obvious that the word (even though it looks like a "u" immediately followed by a "t") was almost certainly "vel".  Additionally, though I had previously noticed that "Chapter 39" would have made more sense if the word had been "ut" instead of "vel", when I read * other sentences throughout Magna Charta with "ut" in place of "vel", those sentences no longer made sense at all.  The word is "vel", not "ut".

I have thought about why "vel" looks so much like "ut" in the surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Charta, and it now appears as though it is nothing more than a coincidence.  In all of its appearances throughout the charter, "vel" is abbreviated as "vl".  As written in Magna Charta (and in many other old documents), the letters "u" and "v" are difficult to distinguish from one another, so the abbreviation for "vel" looks like "ul", which can easily be confused with "ut".

* I know very little Latin, but I knew enough to understand how the substitution would affect the relationship between certain words.

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