Tag Archives: papal letters

After Leo, then what?

Me at Leo’s tomb, St Peter’s

My current research is embroiled in the next steps of my project on the letters of Leo the Great — editing, translating, and writing a commentary on them. If I live to see the end of this, what will my next big project be? I will stick with papal letters if I’ve not tired of them, but from a different perspective.

I would want to write a social history of Latin Christianity in the long (papal) fifth century — Siricius in 385 to Symmachus’ death in 514. The core sources would be the papal letters, although I am not afraid of using corroborating evidence or challenging them with contrary evidence as I go. One of the frustrations I had with Crisis Management in Late Antiquity is that, since it was a study of only one body of evidence, all sorts of other questions of how bishops dealt with crises were excluded, or at least potential answers were excluded. I don’t want to do that.

The question I would pose would be a sidestep of papal history and episcopal self-fashioning in late antique Rome. Instead, I would ask, ‘What do these letters tell us about everybody else? Especially the laypeople.‘ What is everyday life like for the fifth-century citizenry of the cities to whom the popes write? Papal letters, like other episcopal letters and canon law documents, are responding to situations. What situations are they responding to? What are the ramifications? How does this fit in with other evidence?

Some of these situations have been studied already, but my angle is not, ‘What does this tell us about Innocent or Celestine?’ Rather, my angle is, ‘What does this tell us about the lives of these ‘ordinary’ people?’

If I’m tired of papal letters by then — as I may well be — a book on the devotional expectations of fifth-century Italian preachers of their lay audience would be of interest, assessing Leo the Great, Peter Chrysologus, and Maximus of Turin. All-too-often visions of late antique piety are concerned with monks or with what these preachers would have considered ‘deviant’ practices — so what did they recommend, and what is its meaning in its own place and time?

Briefly again on the Cologne manuscript from last time

So, what’s the upshot of everything I had to say about Cologne 212 the other day? In sum — overall, this manuscript from the year 600 seems neither better nor worse in its variants than its Carolingian successors a couple of centuries later, except that it has some large lacunae in its text of a few letters. And it has some intriguing variants in the letter of Siricius that I shall be on the lookout for in manuscripts still to be read.

The lesson is a basic one: Earlier is not necessarily better. (We need the Carolingians!)

What I failed to mention was what comes after the letter of Siricius. You see, the set of papal letters before Siricius, as I said, is called the ‘Canones urbicani’. Then we have the damaged text of Siricius to Himerius of Tarragona. But immediately following it is the letter of Pope Innocent I to Victricius of Rouen.

The ‘Canones urbicani’ already included two of Innocent’s letters. Yet the compiler has added a third outside the collection. This third letter of his begins:

Incp epist decretalis uniuers epos urbis romae prodium prouinc missae

kn28-0212_160 incipit of epistulae decretales (2)That heading — or ‘Incipit’ — is shared with another manuscript in Munich, Clm 6243. I haven’t worked on that manuscript yet, so I’m not sure about even which folio to find the incipit! But the addition of this third letter from Innocent means that the Munich manuscript and the Cologne manuscript have the same collection of papal letters. Presumably, then, the Cologne compiler had a copy of the collection as it exists in the Munich manuscript and added what was lacking from his own.

These sorts of interrelationships between different manuscripts are what make the textual criticism of early papal letters so difficult. Where did which version of a collection or a letter originate? How might these different collections collide and converge and reframe our readings? How, in the midst of all this, might we rediscover the texts as sent by the popes themselves back in the fourth and fifth centuries?