Dionysius Exiguus — too much overlooked

Dionysius Exiguus, or ‘Denys the Short’ (Wee Dennis, perhaps?) was a ‘Scythian’ (ie. from the Northeastern edge of the Roman Empire) monk who lived at Rome in the early sixth century. I have a feeling this is precisely why he has fallen into obscurity, for — other than Boethius & Benedict — the Latin Fathers between the two papal Greats (Leo, d. 461, & Gregory, ascended sedes Apostolica 590) are often overlooked. One may read Sidonius Apollonaris out of an interest in Late Latin prose style, but who reads Cassiodorus these days?

Anyway, this wee man is far too often overlooked. The only two books I found about him in the University of Edinburgh Library are both about the fact that he is the person who set out to establish the date of Christ’s birth — and his version stuck, even though he got it wrong (thus BC & AD trace back to him). These two works are both fairly recent, Anno Domini by Georges Declercq and The Easter computus and the origins of the Christian era by Alden A. Mosshammer.

Dionysius, though, is an important person to focus our attention upon not only because of Anno Domini starting with him, but also because of the important place he stands and the era of which he is indicative.

Dionysius was prominent chiefly for two activities — translating and editing (maybe this is why I think we should look at him more closely!). He translated various works into Latin, such as the Life of St. Pachomius, Proterius of Alexandria’s letter to Pope Leo, the letter of Proclus of Constantinople to the Armenians concerning the orthodox faith, and some works of Gregory of Nyssa concerning the creation of the world.

Sadly, as the Oxford Classical Dictionary notes, ‘Translation has often been marginalized as a second-order activity, lacking in originality’ (‘Translation’). People have an obsession with first things, with the primus inventor, with ‘the original’, with ‘creativity’ and ‘new contributions to knowledge’ that things such as translation or Roman art or the entirety of the Middle Ages, due to their ‘derivative’ nature are scorned and ignored.

Yet translation is an important task. It can tell you as much about the translator as a text composed by the author him/herself. Is this writer skilled at the primary language? Is there facility in the rendering into the target language? What things are changed? What effects do these changes have? Why might they have been made? Are all changes ‘errors’? Can a translation ‘improve’ upon the original?

Furthermore, the Early Medieval enterprise of translation is an important reality in a world where Latin and Greek readers are becoming more and more estranged, unable to read each other’s bodies of literature. Therefore, it becomes imperative that important texts be made available in Latin for the Latin-reading public. Part of the shift from a ‘Classical’ to a ‘Medieval’ world was the shift from a bilingual Roman Empire to a very real, at times insurmountable, division between the Greek East and the Latin West.

Observing which works were translated by Dionysius and his contemporaries. and for whom and what the distribution of these translations was can show us a lot about the late Patristic Age as it forged a brave, new Medieval world.

Dionysius Exiguus is also notable for his contribution to canon law. Here, again, he is not the first to engage in the task under discussion, but he is important and indicative of the age in his own right. He compiled a bipartite collection of documents related to canon law (a ‘canonical collection’), the first part covering the canons of various synods East and West up to Chalcedon, the second collecting papal letters from 284-498.

This, the Collectio Dionysiana, is not unique. Of the canonical collections that contain letters of Leo the Great, fifteen of them are from the sixth century; of the fifteen, seven are from the first half, including the Dionysiana. Although I am aware only of canonical collections with Leonine material, no such collections seem to exist prior to the turn of the sixth century. The early 500s, then, are an important age for the transmission of canon law.

Collections such as the Collectio Dionysiana are very important in this period, because the papal Register was an invention of Gregory the Great. Thus, pre-Gregorian papal letters have a somewhat patchy and scattered history (quite literally). Taking these disparate materials and putting a number of them into a single volume for easy access was a vitally important task at the the beginning of the 500s. Thus could popes and other persons with a need to consult the mind of past Bishops of Rome on issues of faith and practice have an easier time of it.

Furthermore, the choice of letters, whether through necessity (‘These are all I have’) or editorial practice (‘These are all I shall use’) helps shape future opinion on these subjects. No longer will popes have to simply cite Sancti Patres; they can actually name who said what — Noster Pater Sanctus Leo, Papa Romae.

This collection, in particular, has an important place in the development of canon law. Other canonical collections made use of the Dionysiana, such as Collectio Vaticana (6th century), Cresconius’ Concordia canonum (mid-6th with a wide array of manuscripts surviving), Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana (8th, many mss), and Collectio Dionysiana adaucta (9th). Canon jurists and papal advisers and popes were reading the Collectio Dionysiana for centuries as they compiled new, larger canonical collections. This particular arrangement and gathering of papal documents would have shaped their own view of papal authority and the ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons.

The manuscripts of collections that trace themselves back to Dionysius are mostly no later than the twelfth century, although there is one from the sixteenth. In the twelfth century, Gratian made his famous Decretum, that brought together various excerpts from canons and papal letters arranged systematically on certain questions, so the copying of material such as the Dionysiana would have understandably gone down. Nevertheless, that is five hundred years of consistent copying and use, even in the face of the famous and influential Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.

Finally, this anthologising of Dionysius’ is, like his translations, indicative of his age. The Later Roman Empire was a world saturated by far too much reading material, and anthologies were in vogue. I doubt this was because people didn’t like reading long extracts or entire works; rather, it’s because there was so much available to put into the anthologies. It is an age where a person can gain a lot without having to read all 144 books of Livy, or over 100 papal letters just to answer one question.

Dionysius is part of the culture that gives birth to the Middle Ages. He is indicative of the wider realm in many ways, and important for the development of western European culture in the years following the ‘Fall’ of Rome. For these reasons, he is too much overlooked.

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