The Interconnected Middle Ages

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

Let us return to the topic of pre-Reformation Christianity in England. One of the most important other facts about it was that it wasn’t just in England. However wide the English may think the English Channel and the North Sea are, the island of Britain has always had strong social, intellectual, political, economic, and whatever other kind of ties to continental Europe.

Consider two of the men I mentioned in my last post — Alexander de Hales and Anselm of Canterbury. The former, although an Englishman, spent his entire scholarly career in France, from what I can tell. The latter was not English and wrote most of his major works while a monk/prior/abbot in Normandy before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. A third of the ‘A’s — Alcuin of York — spent most of his career on the continent as well.

One of our oldest complete Latin Bibles is the Codex Amiatinus in Amiata, Italy. It has been demonstrated that this codex was actually made in St Bede’s monastery in Northumberland. And, interestingly enough, it is a copy of an Italian Bible brought North by Bede’s spiritual father, Benedict Biscop. Elsewhere in Italy we find one of the most famous books of Old English literature, the Vercelli Book. Both of these will have been left behind by pilgrims.

Canterbury and Durham may have been important sites of pilgrimage in mediaeval England, but the English went on pilgrimage to Rome so much that not only were they complained of in terms of bad behaviour along the route, but there was a whole section of the city abutting the Vatican where they lived. They also went to Spain, to Santiago, one of the biggest pilgrim sites in Europe. And even when Jerusalem was not in Crusader hands, some went so far as that!

Coming to know the continental contemporaries of British theologians and devotional writers will help us enter more fully into their thought-world. It will also benefit us. Consider some of the bright lights whom I found listed as being in Durham Priory’s library:

  • St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) – One of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, he not only tamed Aristotle for Christianity in his Summa, he brought many of the riches of Greek Christianity into dialogue with his own Latin tradition. Saint of the week here.
  • St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) – Called ‘the Last of the Fathers’ by his Cistercian brothers, this is one of the greatest mystical theologians in the Latin Middle Ages. He was even Dante’s guide to the Uncreated Light. Saint of the week here.
  • Peter Lombard (1096-1160) – His Sentences became the standard theological textbook of the Latin Middle Ages, and a major exercise of many Masters and Doctors was to write a commentary on him. Thomas Aquinas did.
  • St Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115) – Ivo was Bishop of Chartres. He’s most famous for canon law compendia, but his preface to said compendia as well as his letters are worth reading. They show a man with a strong moral sense but a pastor’s heart. (I mean, expressed in mediaeval terms, so…)
  • Richard of St Victor (1110-1173) – A Scottish mystical theologian who was prior of the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris. Both scholastic and mystical, in a way. The Victorines were heavily influenced by their friends over at Clairvaux, from what I understand.
  • Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141) – A Saxon mystical theologian and exegete also at the Augustinian Abbey of St Victor in Paris.
  • Bonaventure (1221-1274) – Head-honcho Franciscan who wrote a life of St Francis as well as some pretty intense mystical theology. Saint of the week here.

There were many others, like Hrabanus Maurus, in Durham’s library. But you get the point. Christianity is never insular, not even in Britain, especially not in the Middle Ages.

Of course, now we all have more than enough reading to last a lifetime…

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