What did ancient/early medieval monks read?

John-Incipit-web1-copy
Incipit of John, Lindisfarne Gospels, Anglo-Saxon gloss

A couple of years ago, I posted about why ancient/early medieval monks read, sharing an excellent quote from Pierre Riché’s book about early medieval education. Lately, I’ve been looking into the libraries of some famous monasteries that gave us copies of Leo’s letters, and I thought I’d share a bit of what these late antique and early medieval monks were reading.

The two monasteries I’m really interesting in sharing with you about are Bobbio, founded by St Columbanus (famously Irish and therefore ‘Celtic’ — for my misgivings about ‘Celtic Christianity’, start here), Corbie, founded in the seventh century by monks from Luxeuil — Luxeuil was also founded by Columbanus.

Bobbio

The monastery of Bobbio was founded in 614 and is considered the ‘Montecassino of northern Italy’ — Montecassino being St Benedict’s monastery. However, whereas Montecassino is still a functioning monastery, Bobbio is not, having been suppressed by the French in 1803 along with many Italian abbeys.

Like many monastic centres on the continent, Bobbio maintained contact with Insular Christianity throughout the Early Middle Ages, visible in both the persons who passed through, their way of writing, and sometimes the language they wrote in. For this reason, I think Bobbio is of interest for those who invest themselves in ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

Here’s what they were reading in the early days, gleaned from Richter, Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages, a book more interested in discussing Bobbio’s relationship to Ireland than the contents of the manuscripts.

The contintental fathers of the church:

  • One of the earliest Bobbio manuscripts is a copy of St Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, S. 45 sup. [saec. VII]).
  • Another potentially seventh-century Bobbio manuscript is a fragment of Pope St Gregory the Great, Dialogues — a collection of lives of Italian saints, include St .Benedict (Stuttgart, Wurttemburgische Landesbibliothek Theol. et Philos. QU. 628).
  • Orosius (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana D. 23 sup.)
  • St Augustine of Hippo (Turin A. II.2)
  • St Basil (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, C. 26 sup.) – Columbanus liked Basil; this is presumably from the ascetic corpus, the Asketikon
  • Gennadius — presumably his Lives of Illustrious Men (Milan, O. 212 sup.)

One of the things I like to point out is that, even if culture and isolation and history and other factors meant that Irish Christianity took some of its own interesting turns along the course of the Early Middle Ages, Irish Christians still saw themselves as part of this big, catholic family.

Law! Apparently, our earliest copy of the first surviving Lombard law code survives in many fragments from Bobbio (St-Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek 730). This makes sense — monks, no matter how hard they try, are still part of wider society.

The Bible! Because of the difficulties facing manuscript survival and the sad history of the monastery, we only have some fragments from the Bible. But if you consider the Rule of St Columbanus, they must have had Bibles!!

Manuscripts that were at Bobbio a bit later include The Life of St Columbanus, the Rule of St Columbanus, a commentary on the Psalms (logically enough, given how much Psalm-singing Columbanus required), Adomnán of Iona’s On the Holy Places, St Augustine of Hippo on Matthew and Luke, and some other material connected with Ireland.

Richter (pp. 146ff.) also discusses the presence of books on computistics (something Irish and English Christians were very into back in the day), Roman secular authors, and grammars.

What I have not found in Richter’s book is any reference to the Bobbio Missal (Paris, lat. 13246), somewhat suprisingly. This Missal is an important witness to seventh- or eighth-century liturgical practice in places that we might cautiously think of liturgically as ‘Gallican’. However, it seems that it was probably not at Bobbio at the time. Oh well. Still, follow the link above and see what it looks like.

Corbie

Corbie was founded in the mid-600s by monks from Luxeuil and flourished throughout the Early Middle Ages. It originally followed the regula mixta — a blend of Benedict and Columbanus. It was dissolved during the French Revolution. My source here is more intensively focussed on the manuscripts than for Bobbio — David Ganz, Bobbio in the Carolingian Renaissance.

First things first: One of our oldest canon law manuscripts is the Collectio Corbeiensis (Paris, lat. 12097, sixth-century: this manuscript is from the patristic era itself!). This manuscript was not copied at Corbie, but it came there in the seventh century, so it is relevant to the discussion. It is comprised mainly of the canons of church councils and papal letters. On the one hand, law is important for the running of a monastery. On the other hand, the sources for canon law are not themselves beyond the scope of theology (as demonstrated by John C. Wei, Gratian the Theologian).

Ganz lists these manuscripts as having been written at Corbie in the Merovingian age (so before the later 700s):

  • Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum I-VI (abridged; Paris, lat. 17655)
  • Pope St Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 14).
  • A manuscript with Gennadius On Ecclesiastical Dogmas and select letters of St Jerome (St Petersburg Lat. Q v I 13)
  • Rule of St Basil (St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 2).
  • Gospel of Matthew (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 3).
  • Gospel of Mark (St Petersburg, Lat. O v I 2).
  • A manuscript of Origen, On Balaam and Balak and John Chrysostom, De Reparatione lapsi (London, British Library, Burney 340 + St Petersburg, Lat. F v I 4)
  • St Augustine, On the Agreement of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 12190)
  • Jerome-Gennadius, On the Lives of Illustrious Men (Paris, lat. 12161)
  • Isidore of Seville, On Laws — Etymologies V 1-27, IX 4-6, 22, and Lex Romana Visigothorum (Paris, lat. 4403A)

Since St Isidore of Seville is sometimes considered the last of the western church Fathers, what we see them writing at Corbie is the Church Fathers and the Bible.

They also acquired some manuscripts from elsewhere:

  • A manuscript containing various works of St Augustine on grace, the Institutes of Nilus the MonkThe Rule of the Four Fathers, and The Rule of the Master (Paris, lat. 12205, sixth-century)
  • St Augustine, City of God books 1-10 (Paris, lat. 12214 + St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 4, sixth-century)
  • A manuscript containing: Rufinus, De Fide; Fulgentius, De Fide Catholica: Origen on the Song of Songs; Jerome On the 42 mansions; Jerome To Demetrias (St Petersburg, Lat. Q v I 6-10)
  • A variety of works of St Augustine (Paris, lat. 13367, sixth-century)
  • Pope St Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job I.18-V.38 (Paris, Nouv. Acq. Lat. 2061).
  • Another patristic volume containing a selection of texts falsely attributed to St Cyprian as well as works of Tertullian, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Sedulius (Paris, lat. 13047)
  • St Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch (Paris, lat. 12168)
  • Old Latin translation of the Gospels (Paris, lat. 17225).
  • Fragments of Ephrem the Syrian
  • Various saints lives
  • A volume with Isidore, Augustine, Chrysostom, Caesarius (Paris, lat. 14086)

Alongside these many patristic works they would add the Venerable Bede in the eighth century. Something to think about — I’ve blogged before about Bede as a church father.

What we see is that monks were reading the Fathers and reading the Bible. Bibles don’t survive as well, it seems. More specifically, they were reading Bible commentaries and books about the ascetic life.

This is not so different from the high medieval highlights from Durham I mentioned a while ago, is it?

And what is the lesson we gain from these old monkish books?

Ad fontes! What nourished these souls, alongside their rigorous regime of prayer, were the Scriptures and the Fathers. It was not the latest, newfangled spiritual teacher. It was not ’40 days to mountain-top experiences of God’. It was not the prosperity gospel. It was the austerity of asceticism, reading the Fathers, singing the Psalms, studying the Bible.

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