Caesarius of Arles … or not: Thoughts on Textual Criticism

19th-century reliquary of St Caesarius — or is it? (Just kidding. It is.)

Last Saturday I attended a very good conference, ‘The World of Caesarius of Arles’ organised by Lucy Grig at the University of Edinburgh. The excellent papers gave insight into Caesarius and the world of early sixth-century Arles/southern Gaul.

One of the more interesting papers presented was that by Conrad Leyser (the name of which escapes me and I don’t have my notes to hand) about what Caesarius actually preached in his sermons. Do we know?

The answer is maybe. The problem with the text of Caesarius’ sermons is that over one hundred of the 238 in Morin’s CCSL edition were either anonymous or attributed to someone else in the manuscript tradition. This is not, of course, always a problem, but it seems that Morin’s methods in determining which sermons were Caesarian were less than scientific.

Nevertheless, during a coffee break, another notable Caesarius scholar said that, while this is an issue everyone knows, he has a feeling that Morin was right a lot of the time.

The way forward, of course, is to re-evaluate the entire corpus and the 1000 mss consulted by Morin over his 40-year project according the principles of modern textual criticism. This is easier said than done. My recommendation is to take as a starting point the methodology that is arising in relation to the study of ancient letters — the discrete collections. This way, we would start with the three sermon collections attributed to Caesarius in the mss, edit them, and then use them as a nucleus and basis for our consideration of the remaining 100+ sermons Morin’s edition of Caesarius’ letters.

What we must admit in the face of so many sermons and so many manuscripts is our own feebleness and fallibility. One of my fellow-PhD students who was present at the conference, in conversation with Leyser and William Klingshirn, said that his faith in modern scholarship was being sorely tested by these considerations — including the fact that everyone knew this about Morin’s edition but tended to ignore or, alternatively, make mention in the preface to their work on Caesarius but go on as though everything was okay anyway.

And Klingshirn said that we tend to act like this all the time — which was even more troubling to my colleague. Classicists, he observe, pretend that the latest or chosen critical edition of an ancient author actually does present the exact wording of the original writer.

This is a fiction that is almost necessary for scholarship — the other extreme is, of course, skepticism about the text that is so severe that one denies the knowability of anything an ancient author wrote. Most of us would like to steer a middle course.

One of my colleagues found a way around this for a commentary he did for the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) text Baruch. He simply used the biblical Codex Vaticanus as his text. This, at least, was a text used by real people in real places at various times in history.

And so we come to Leo. How am I to interact with the text as I edit and translate? As editor, I will have to choose — or even emend — the reading I find most likely. But at least there I can give the variants. The critical apparatus — that body of footnotes lurking at the bottom of the page of good editions of ancient/medieval texts — should be a window onto the manuscripts, so that if readers dislike my choice, they can find out the content and perceived quality of the other choices available.

As translator, I will have to present my own English interpretation of the pope’s Latin; I intend to discuss important Latin words and variants in my annotations — fear not.

Having a chat in the Kelvingrove with the artist formerly known as Homer

Having a chat in the Kelvingrove with the artist formerly known as Homer

But at the end of the day, there will always be a certain amount of ambiguity concerning the exact wording of any text for which we lack an autograph (that is, a copy in the author’s own handwriting) — which is most ancient and mediaeval literature. However, this does not mean we should stop commenting on Homer or Caesarius or Leo or the Bible. Very often, editors are right. Very often, the scribes are right and the editors’ job is easy. Let us take comfort in that as we sit down with our Homer or Gilgamesh or Bible this evening.

On the other hand, it does not mean we should uncritically accept the conclusions of the textual critics and editors — they, too, are fallible persons. There is a chance that some of M L West’s obolised (that is, marked as ‘inauthentic’) passages are, in fact, ‘authentic’. There is a chance that, however many editions of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament they end up producing, they will still err in their editorial choices. The critical reader and interpreter of the text should be willing to point this out.

In short — even with Caesarius, there is a chance that what we are reading is the original writer. Let us, therefore, continue reading and interpreting, but always with an eye at the marginalia and footnotes.

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