The Patristic Middle Ages

It is only natural for the Anglican who becomes interested in pre-Reformation Christianity to turn to the writers, art, customs, liturgy, etc., of medieval England, or of Britain more widely, even encompassing Ireland. Many are thus drawn in the world of Bede and Cuthbert, or of Anselm and the scholastics. The great soaring cathedrals, ars anglicana embroidery, reliquaries, liturgical practices from England are used as aids in devotion.

Even if we restrict ourselves to writers, there are many great specimens from the English Middle Ages. Aldhelm, Alcuin, Aelfric, and Aelred spring to mind. Many are no doubt proud of the English origins of Alexander de Hales (d. 1245 at Paris). Alexander drives the mind to scholasticism and Robert Grosseteste. Aldhelm reminds us of the early days of English Christianity, and thus St Bede the Venerable.

The mystically-minded find themselves devouring The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle. Some even read Margery Kempe.

If not with Bede, many Anglicans seeking older roots find themselves in happy company amongst Celts — Columbanus, Columba, Adamnan, Brigid, Brendan, and more, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

But if we want to nourish ourselves on pre-Reformation English fare (porridge, mostly, I imagine), we should be aware of the nourishment the English themselves had — and that nourishment, whether we are thinking about Aldhelm (d. 709) or Grosseteste (d. 1253), was (besides sacred Scripture, of course) the Church Fathers.

This fact is seen, of course, in their writings themselves. I am at the moment looking at the transmission and influence of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (compiled in late 700s). This homiliary consists of patristic homilies organised according to the liturgical calendar, and it was definitely used in England — passages were used in the Old English homilies of Aelfric (and others; Aelfric d. c. 1010), and it influenced Cistercian homiliaries, and hence the works of Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167). We have multiple copies of homiliaries descended from that of Paul the Deacon from English monasteries.

Robert Grosseteste, an early scholar at Oxford, wrote a commentary on Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy. Much of Bede’s commentaries on Scripture is quotation from the Fathers. If we wish to claim Anselm (who did most of his writing either before he was Archbishop of Canterbury or in exile in Italy), he is heavily indebted to St Augustine of Hippo (Giles Gasper has done work on Anselm’s wider patristic sources in Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance).

The manuscripts tell the same story. Looking through the handy (if sadly imperfect) list from the Durham Priory Library Recreated project, of books known to have been in the priory library, citing by where the appear in the list, we have works by:

  • Gregory the Great (many)
  • Boethius (I always think he should be included)
  • St Benedict of Nursia (both Latin original and English translation)
  • Jerome (many)
  • Isidore of Seville (several)
  • Augustine (many)
  • John Chrysostom (several)
  • Cassiodorus (I think he goes with Boethius)
  • the anonymous Opus Imperfectum in Mattheum
  • Origen
  • Didymus the Blind
  • Eugippius
  • John Cassian
  • the Vitae Patrum, which is largely lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Prudentius
  • Fulgentius of Ruspe (they also have the mythographer, but he’s someone else)
  • Ennodius
  • Julian of Toledo
  • Peter Chrysologus
  • Lactantius (mind you, this is a printed book from 1509)

In that list are many ‘etc’s, some of which are patristic. As well, there are many canon law books, which are largely topically-arranged excerpts from patristic-era canon law documents, such as the canons of church councils, papal letters, and writings from major church fathers like Augustine. There are also works of Peter Lombard; his Sentences are themselves by and large topically arranged patristic excerpts, and much of his Bible commentaries is chains of quotations from the Fathers (if I remember correctly). The ‘Omeliarium’, of which Durham has two volumes, is the patristic homiliary of Paul the Deacon, mentioned above. I see another two-volume set of homilies — not sure which. The Bibles are also very frequently glossed with commentary from the church fathers in the margins.

In other words, if you want to nourish your faith in a manner consistent with the English Middle Ages, I recommend reading the church fathers as well as Aelred and Aelfric. They certainly did.

Coming up soon: The interconnected Middle Ages.

Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 1: Homilies

I was chatting with a friend at a barbecue yesterday (indeed, in the smoke of the very barbecue itself!), and the subject of the Council of Tours of 813 arose, as it does. It arose for about the only reason I imagine it does arise these days, which is Canon XVII:

It seemed to our unanimity, that any bishop have homilies containing the necessary admonitions, about which his subjects be educated, that is about the catholic faith, according as they can grasp, about the perpetual retribution of the good and the eternal damnation of the wicked, about the future resurrection as well and the last judgement and with which deeds the blessed life can be promoted or by which it can be excluded. And that each be zealous to translate the same homilies clearly into the rustic Roman language or the Thiotisca, so that everyone can more easily understand the things that are said.

The Council of Tours of 823 did other things, encapsulated in 52 canons. You can read the Latin here. They legislate about the sale of church offices, about the translation of clerics, that bishops should frequently read and memorise the Gospels and letters of St Paul and become acquainted with the church fathers (in particular they should read Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule), that bishops should preach, take care of the poor, and lead a holy life. Various other things are articulated. It’s not uninteresting.

But, of course, it is Canon XVII that is most referenced. This is one of the first times we meet ‘rustica Romana lingua’ as something distinct from Latin. In the immediate context this would mean early Old French, but also includes the nascent Romance languages elsewhere in the Frankish domains in Spain and Italy, I’m sure. The Council of Tours was a local council, but it was part of Charlemagne’s efforts to correct religion and morals in his realms; it was assembled at the emperors behest, as were (it seems) some other councils that year. Thiotisca is mediaeval German.

Anyway, this canon is interesting because it counters two claims sometimes made by some Protestants (not all Protestants, and not all of them all the time). First, that there was no preaching in the Middle Ages. Second, that the vernacular was forbidden from official church activities in the Middle Ages. These are both false. Given that the Dominican order (founded 1216) is even officially called the Order of Preachers, the idea that people didn’t preach in the Middle Ages very easily refuted; just search your local university library catalogue for medieval preaching. Or sit back and enjoy this anthology by J.M. Neale. Nonetheless, some may still imagine that everything was in Latin.

Over a century after Charlemagne’s reform synod in 813 at Tours, in a land beyond Frankish control, we have the homilies of Aelfric of Eynsham, whose Old English homilies survive — you can read modern English translations here, if you wish. We also have the tenth-century Blickling Homilies in Old English. I am not an expert on all the vernacular homilies, but I do note a book about preaching in Romance languages prior to 1300 in my university’s catalogue. A lot of these sermons do not survive in the vernacular, though, as discussed at Harvard’s Houghton Library website. Since Latin was the international language of public discourse, most sermons were translated into Latin for dissemination; thus, the oral and the written find themselves at a much farther remove in this instance than usual.

Nevertheless, if we consider stories about the influence held by preachers such as St Francis in the early 1200s or Savonarola in the later half of the 1400s, we realise that vernacular preaching must have been normal.

The point of my poorly-sourced argument above?

Medieval Christianity was not as far removed from ordinary life as you might expect. The church was not, for a full half of its history, dominated by Latin to the exclusion of a language such as the people understands. Yes, the liturgy was in Latin. Yes, the language of high European culture was Latin. Yes, the official pronouncements of the ecclesiastical authorities were in Latin. But the day-to-day preaching to ordinary folk of the Middle Ages was in English, Old French, the old dialects of German, not Latin.

When we read the Reformation, this is important to keep in mind. There was preaching, and it was in the vernacular. It was the translation of the liturgy and the reform of certain practices and teachings that were the main concern of the Reformers. They, themselves, inherited and continued, in many ways, the mediaeval heritage of vernacular preaching. Let’s not erect mediaeval straw men in our quest to keep our consciences clear in our separation from Rome.