Seminary LXVI: chopping up Augustine with David Ganz

I have been buried in conference writing and too busy to write much else lately, for which I apologise. Let me now, at least, get the last of the queued-up reports on other people’s papers done before I descend into the maelstrom of Leeds and the write-ups that will require… This paper was David Ganz‘s appearance at the last Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research for the academic year, on the 26th May (yes, that was a while ago, you’re right, sorry) and his title was: “Chopping up Augustine: reading and fragmenting in the early Middle Ages”.

St Augustine refuting a heretic, New York, Morgan Pierpont Library, MS 92b (a C13th Book of Hours), fo. 112r

St Augustine refuting a heretic, New York, Morgan Pierpont Library, MS 92b (a C13th Book of Hours), fo. 112r

What David was asking about was the practice of reading by excerpting, compilation of authors’ most pithy remarks into effectively new works, without regard to the context that we (rightly) think of as crucial to understanding the source. Many a medieval user of these texts was, however, less concerned with understanding Augustine (or whomever) and more concerned with understanding the greater Truth they were all studying, and therefore most interested in the points where the writer they were using seemed to have got closest to it or was most helpful in breaking it open. The result is a vast number of manuscripts of such ‘best of’ compilations: the Liber scintillarum of Defensor of Ligugé, for example, is known in some 350 manuscripts (not a typo), which is surely more than almost any single original Patristic or medieval work. “Here you have what you want to find”, says Defensor in the preface (albeit this is only preserved in manuscripts of the eleventh-century and later, so may not be his), and it seems to have been an accurate assessment. This is, then, a widespread practice, but is relatively unstudied largely because we don’t work like that nowadays. David had a long array of early modern and Renaissance sages (none of whom, I confess, I had ever heard of before) who defended this style of ‘broken learning’ because it provoked enquiry more easily, but it’s still not how we usually play the game of scholarship now.1

Defensor of Ligugé, Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks), London, British Library, Royal MS 7 C.iv, fo. 62v

Augustine was naturally a popular target for this approach, though not the most popular: Defensor used half again as much by Gregory the Great and twice as much as that from Isidore of Seville, whose style of work rather lends itself to excerpting I guess. Defensor was rigorous about naming his sources, and the oldest manuscripts (C8th2) have flashy rubrication indicating where the excerpted author changes (see below), but later excerpters, many of whom used Defensor, were less bothered about this. The truth was the thing, not exactly which authority it came from. Peregrinus, writing c. 780, does name his sources and they include not just Augustine, Gregory, Isidore and other Fathers but also Virgil and even Pelagius! Defensor tells us that he was selecting deliberately for the simple (which would, I’d have thought, exclude more Augustine than it admits…) so that the reader could take away the nugget of truth and meditate on it. That’s the purpose of works like these, another thing that we don’t do so much any more perhaps: to provide a kernel for prolonged and sustained reflection. That may of course be because this type of reading would exist most happily in a monastic context, and that’s not where scholarship largely takes place now. Even when we get to take time off and think, and how rare that is, we’re not thinking about just one paragraph. In this respect, I think personally, vive la différence, but the fact that this is how many of our authors are trained is probably something to bear in mind.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

One last point was possibly the most interesting to me: the manuscript survival of this material is quite early, and all the texts that refer to the practice of excerpting and contemplation like this are also early. David therefore wondered if it might not have been principally a Merovingian practice, and whether that in turn might explain the relative rarity of the copying of entire books that early. It is usually assumed that the Carolingian Renaissance mainly represented an increase in quantity of intellectual endeavour, because there was more patronage being put behind it; David however showed here at least one reason to suspect a change in the quality of that endeavour too, which is something that could mean a lot more when it’s fully worked out. However, there are a lot of grey areas around this, and for a lot of them, as David said in questions, the only ethical response is, “We don’t have the evidence, and sometimes we have the integrity to say so.”


1. There may be a teaching point here: how would it work to take four or five scholars on a debated subject, take a paragraph from each and/or from the sources under debate, hand them to students as a worksheet and say, “how can these people all be talking about the same thing? Discuss”? This is even sort of the model I begin my forthcoming paper on aprisio with, though it was nothing like as conscious as that. It might be worth trying, rather than immediately giving them the full articles or books to read.

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8 responses to “Seminary LXVI: chopping up Augustine with David Ganz

  1. Very interesting; but it occurs to me that we often present primary sources to undergraduates this way, in an effort to cover more material. See Paul Halsall’s Internet Medieval Source Book. There are some full texts, but mostly not — and PH is following in the footsteps of many print works. If you can follow that odd image.

    • Yes, fair enough; I guess the difference I was trying to press is the deliberate use of things to make the reader think. However, that isn’t really the usage that David was talking about, which was more providing a piece of material for thought that was already going to occur, if you see what I mean. So I’m heading off on a tangent rather and it may not be very important.

  2. Interesting post. I’m talking about something similar at the Courtauld on Friday.

  3. So you are! Your interests must have been shifting lately. I wish I could come but I have the child that evening. Tell me about it at Leeds!

  4. Forgive my slowness, but aren’t we talking about a tradition of floriglegium, in this case one particular and early example of it? I wonder how Ganz’ remarks also would match up with Rolf Bremmer and Kees Dekker’s recent works on encyclopedic knowledge etc (I haven’t read these two volumes yet, they are too rich for my budget, but I dearly want to!). Sounds like an interesting paper though.

    • Isn’t a florilegium usually entire pieces, rather than such short quotes? I could easily be wrong about this. The word didn’t come up, in any case, and so I’m not sure how David would have answered that question.

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