I recently submitted the manuscript of my book about manuscripts of Leo the Great. As I was revising it from thesis version to book version, I couldn’t help but notice those manuscripts whose owners or scribes we can name. There are several potentially interesting leads one could follow — Lanfranc of Canterbury, William of Malmesbury, the early network of Cistercians — but the one that stood out to me this time was from the millennium after Leo’s episcopate — not merely a large number of fifteenth-century manuscripts, but manuscripts that belonged to Basilios Bessarion, Nicholas of Cusa (Kues), Domenico Capranica, and Juan de Torquemada.
These men were all cardinals.
The first two are the most famous today. Bessarion was a ‘convert’ from the Greek side to the Latin side in the debates over unification that *almost* succeeded in the 1430s and 40s. Nicholas of Cusa (from Kues in Germany) is a famous humanist, theologian, and writer on matters to do with church constitution; he was originally on the side of a group devoted to having a series of church councils with higher authority than the pope (so-called conciliarists), but he also ‘converted’ to the papal side.
Capranica was also a humanist and theologian, this time from Italy. The Spaniard Juan de Torquemada’s name may be familiar because of his nephew, Tomás de Torquemada, first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition and model for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor in the parable told by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov.
You are probably now very excited (ha). Well, besides being cardinals, these men were all at the church council that started at Ferrara in 1438 and then, because of the unhealthy conditions there, moved to Florence in 1439. In fact, Capranica’s copy of Leo’s sermons and letters was written while he was in Ferrara early in 1438. Nicholas of Cusa owned a manuscript of the sermons and letters and another of the sermons that also contained some of his own works written in his own hand. Moreover, I am given to understand that Nicholas quotes Leo throughout his writings.
You may now wonder what went on at Ferrara-Florence that I find the interest in Leo of these cardinals significant. Well, this council is momentous for two reasons, and it really depends who teaches you about it. When I was first taught about this council in my Master’s degree, it was in the context of a class about councils generally (mostly western), and by a scholar who’s interest was Early Modern. We learned about Ferrara-Florence and its opposition to the rival Council of Basel that had been officially ended by Eugenius IV but that decided to depose him and keep rolling, anyway. The people in Basel are termed ‘conciliarists’ in ecclesiastical history, and there is often subtext in talking about that they are (imagined to be) a group that could have held Reformation at bay if only they hadn’t mishandled Eugenius.
The second time I learned about this council was in a class on Byzantine Theology, and the main thrust was its attempt(s) at reunion with the Eastern churches, the debate on filioque, and why it ultimately failed.
Bessarion represents a Greek who came over to the Latin side, Nicholas a conciliarist who went over to the papal side.
There are two ways one is likely to consider this quartet of cardinals and their books of Leo, and both are probably right.
First: They are drawn to Leo because he supports things they support. At these general councils, it was important to have antiquity on your side. Leo the Great is the first bishop of Rome to put forth an articulate theology of Petrine primacy. Exactly what you want in debates with conciliarists and Greeks! Moreover, he was on explicitly good terms with the Emperors Marcian and Leo I, so that’s good when talking to the Greeks. Just look how Marcian treated him! (Well, maybe not too closely — some of the letters are less reverent than others.) Moreover, it is clear that the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon is not gaining traction until Leo gives his approval — evidence (one can imagine the argument) that popes are higher than councils. He also rules on various matters of faith and life that the Latin, papal side was in favour of.
Second: Having read Leo, someone like Nicholas finds some persuasive arguments for papal primacy. Having read Leo, someone like Bessarion believes that the unity of the church hinges on papal-imperial cooperation.
Both are probably true, to some extent. Your interests shape which authors you are pointed to. Someone probably told Capranica that Leo was worth a read, so he had a copy made while at the council. And the books you read shape what you believe.
And so, 998 years after he was elected to the apostolic see of St Peter, Leo found an interested and engaged readership as the history of the church marched on.