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John Magee ‘In Search of the First Medieval Aristotle’

Boethius, De musica, from Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, fol. 73v (12th c.)

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural lecture of the Durham Centre for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (DCAMP), delivered by Prof. John Magee of the University of Toronto. I have long had respect for Magee since he taught me Greek prose composition and supervised my MA research on John Cassian back in Toronto, and it was a pleasure to see him in action, showing us what philology can do as well as the intimate links between ancient and medieval philosophy.

His lecture was about the text of Boethius’ elementary commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione. Being fond of Boethius, as readers of this blog will know, I was happy to encounter an aspect of this Late Antique philosopher I was unacquainted with. What Magee did was use philology and manuscript studies to narrow our gap between the death of Boethius in 524 and the first manuscript of this commentary. This was done by considering references and quotations from Boethius in sources related to Cassiodorus’ monastic centre at Vivarium in Italy and by looking at traces of editorial intervention before the appearance of the manuscripts.

In short, what we see is Aristotle being read in Latin in western Europe, alongside Boethius’ commentary, between 580 and 800, and particular uses of Boethius’ translations being made in western Frankland. This is the sort of thing I like, and it inevitably made me think of Leo the Great and the period between his death in 461 and 600 or 700 when the first manuscripts with his letters appear. The methodology is the same.

It is also important because the way this Aristotle and this Boethian commentary were being used anticipates some of the developments in the study of philosophy in the High Middle Ages, such as the Logica Vetus. Moreover, we are reminded that parts of Aristotle were current in western Europe before 1123, and, in fact, were being read before we even have manuscripts that survive.

And, for those who are less interested in the history of philosophy, perhaps, this Aristotelian world also helps us see Charlemagne and his court and that Renaissance more clearly.

It was a pleasure to engage with a talk that brought into play philosophy, philology, palaeography, manuscript studies, and history — and even a moment of art history for good measure!

I look forward to DCAMP’s upcoming events.