Tag Archives: medieval manuscripts

Why on earth does my research matter?

Sometimes it can be hard for PhD students (or academics in general, I imagine) to explain to normal people why our research matters. Of course, my research often needs no justification in the academic circles I travel in. People who work with popes or the Later Roman Empire or mediaeval canon law or manuscripts or the Church Fathers say, ‘Fantastic! I’m so glad someone’s doing that.’

Nevertheles, sometimes engineers are curious about my research.

So why does tracing the relationships amongst manuscripts with Pope Leo I’s letters, creating some sort of stemma (family tree), and ultimately a new critical edition, matter?

First, the manuscripts and the family tree are important. They show us who was reading Leo, what they were reading, and where. They show us how people were using Leo — papal letters are not as straightforward as, say, epics (not saying Vergilian TC is easy, mind you), being reconfigured and excerpted in various ways for various reasons almost every time they survive. This helps us understand better the world of the scribes, of the monks, of the movers and shakers of ecclesiastical history and intellectual history to the end of the Middle Ages.

Understanding Leo’s manuscripts in particular will also cast light in two important directions. First, we will gain insight into the early years of the transmission of papal correspondence to posterity, the ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ and habits of the scribal tradition. Second, we will gain insight into how the so-called ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, whence come many collections and manuscripts of canon law (and thus of Leo’s letters, which are the raw material for canon law), which was occurring from the late eighth to late ninth centuries and touched on much more than canon law — understanding this corner of it, however, will cast light on the whole as we better see how Leo and the papal decretals were treated and transmitted by Western Europe’s scribes as history moved towards the Central Middle Ages.

These two aspects of understanding the manuscripts help us understand the past better. They fill in corners of the darkness of our understanding. They help put faces and moments and material objects (books) to the events that shaped the mediaeval church, a highly powerful institution that looms large over the transmission of all western intellectual history, papal, Christian, and otherwise.

For me, that would be enough. For car engineers, the question of, ‘Why?’ may still loom.

So we go a further step back. Leo’s letters cast light on Leo, on the early development of western canon law and the papacy, and on the events and theology surrounding the Council of Chalcedon in 451 — at which council his delineation of two-nature Christology was approved as official within the Empire, and is still accepted by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestants. Leo is, thus, important for those interested in those three traditions (whether Christians or interested persons), as well as for those interested in the non-Chalcedonian traditions (the ‘Miaphysite’ Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, as well as the ‘Dyophysite’ (aka ‘Nestorian’) churches).

And whether you believe or even care about Late Antique Christology, Leo is an important player in the history of ideas and the fragmentation of Christendom in those years, and is important for the centuries that follow through the course of intellectual history (this is also true when we consider Rome and her relations with Constantinople). Finding out his ipsissima uerba is an important task, then.

If that leaves you unconvinced, think about this: The last edition of Leo’s letters is flawed. Even when the Ballerini made good editorial choices, their notes leave much to be desired. It is important for us who study ideas to be transparent, to know where these ideas, these words are found. Is a variant reading a conjecture from the editor? If it’s from a manuscript, which one? Knowing these things will enable the reader to better evaluate the author’s ideas.

In the end, if we want to go beyond these reasons as to why my research matters, all I can think of is: It furthers our knowledge of several important moments and movements in the history of ideas, of canon law, the papacy, Christian theology, Latin epistolography, and more.

And knowledge is worth having.

Justifying that brings us to philosophy, but, in fact, so will the question, ‘Why a better car?’

On Mediaeval Books: Including the Continuation of Forestalled Reminiscences of Oxford and Books I Beheld There

As discussed previously, the purpose for my recent trip to Oxford was the viewing and collation of a manuscript lurking in Oriel College (for manuscripts do, indeed, lurk). Due to circumstances outwith my control, I was able only to view this manuscript for two full and two half days in my second week in the beautiful city of Oxford. I spent the first week sightseeing with my wife, Tim, and Doreen,* using material in the Bodleian, and being ill.

Then I got to spend my days with this manuscript. The book, as the word manuscript requires, is written by hand. It is on vellum parchment, made from the skins of goats. As mentioned in my last post, at least two people wrote it, as well as a corrector who inserted a couple of phrases in between the lines and gave alternatives to the odd word here and there. This manuscript, however, had far fewer such ‘corrections’ than the one I viewed in Milan in January. Except for the last few folios (pages), the ink is brown (someone with greater expertise — Mr Dunning? — may be able to answer whether ink simply turns brown with age). Each new item is proclaimed to the reader by a heading in red ink. Each new section begins with a littera notabilior, a more noticeable letter — notably larger than the rest, sticking into the margin or the space between the columns on the page, and in red or blue ink.

It has a table of contents that, as is the custom in mediaeval books, gives you no page numbers. The last item is various works ofPapa Leo Magnus. Hence my interest in this manuscript; it is reputed to be the best manuscript overall of the particular collection of items found in it.

I pulled out my printouts of the last edition of the letters I was there to see (1757, but printed at New College 2012 ;]) and began my work. I noted in my text which folios the Leonine items began and finished. I took note of which sermons were included with the letters. I found where on earth the patristic testimonia meant to accompany Ep. 165 had got to.

Then I began to compare the texts, marking the variations between the two on my printouts.

It was tiring. My eyes grew tired. I will go blind from this. Sometimes I lost my place on the page. But it was worth it.

Mediaeval books are great. They are brimming with awesome. Besides the characteristics mentioned above, mediaeval scribes had a series of established abbreviations they would use. This made their job easier. Eventually, one gets used to them. They are written with care and precision. People laboured over them. Goats died for them. In a letter about the date of Easter, a scribe included a marginalium:

Require in fine libri duas epistolas missa beato Leoni de ratione Pasche.

‘Find at the end of this book two letters sent by blessed Leo about the reckoning of Easter.’ A very practical concern. This was a book meant to be used — outside of Leo’s sermons and the ‘dogmatic’ letters, the material found herein is primarily for the use of canon lawyers. People needed to know what the church councils and popes had to say about things. So books like this were gathered and copied by hand for generations.

These people took painstaking care with their books. It is a joy to spend time with a mediaeval manuscript, with a book that a monk somewhere spent hours upon hours of his life crafting with pen and ink.

My final day in Oxford saw me at All Soul’s College where I spent time with a book printed in 1470 by Giovanni Bussi. It has all of Leo’s sermons and six of his letters in it. Like the twelfth-century Oriel manuscript, the table of contents lacked page numbers. Also like that handwritten book, Bussi’s book had litterae notabiliores, written by hand. Indeed, one S was even in gold leaf surrounded by a blue box and with the interior of the S’s coils red and green.

Mediaeval books are works of art. They are treasures to be enjoyed and experienced, wonders to behold, from the magnificent illuminations of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the simplicity of St Cuthbert’s Gospel or of a book of canon law.

*Huzzah for the Oxford Comma, for my wife is not Tim and Doreen as ‘my wife, Tim and Doreen,’ would imply.