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.

Blogging Benedict: Reading and suchlike

Benedictine monks are meant to be literate. Eventually, it will come to pass in the Middle Ages that such a creature as the ‘choir monk’ will exist — someone who can sing the offices in Latin but does not know Latin. But originally, in the Latin-speaking world of Late Antique Italy, it was expected that they would memorise the Psalter and offices both orally and from books, in a language that they understood. Indeed, in the language that they spoke every day.

Throughout the Rule of St Benedict, there is a lot of reading and listening to people read. When Benedict discusses the different offices within the monastery, we learn about the ‘weekly reader’ who reads at meal times (chapter 38). The rest of the monks sit in silence while the reader reads; they use sign language at the table when they need someone to do something. No moment for edification is lost for the Benedictine.

After supper, there is time to read collationes or the Lives of the Fathers — the latter probably being the Desert Fathers (chapter 42). This is not the time for reading Old Testament history, because it might excite some of younger brothers’ imaginations, and then they’ll have trouble sleeping. In the twelfth century, the books for reading at collatio at Durham Cathedral Priory were:

  • Lives of the Fathers
  • Diadema Monachorum (Crown of Monks by Smaragdus of St-Mihiel)
  • Paradise of Ephrem with Lives of the Egyptians (that is, Desert Fathers)
  • Speculum (I do not know which one)
  • Dialogues (presumably Gregory the Great’s, which are Italian saints’ lives)
  • Excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule
  • Isidore of Seville, De Summo Bono
  • Prosper On the Contemplative Life
  • The Book of Odo (of Cluny, I suspect; he wrote a work called ‘Collationes’)
  • John Cassian
  • Decem Collationes — awkwardly, this is a title of a work of Cassian’s

In chapter 48, we read about the daily round in the Benedictine monastery. The day is divided between times of work and times of reading, besides the set hours to pray the office.

Reading is called lectio divina at the start of this chapter; Carolinne White translates that phrase as ‘biblical study’. What exact process of reading, and whether it refers specifically to Scripture, is less clear than many would make you think. Pierre Riché, in Education and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries, interprets lectio divina generally to mean the study of Scripture for the end of devotion and religion, as opposed to a more scholarly or academic pursuit. What techniques or meditation on Scripture are involved is less clear at this stage. Sometimes, though, it does seem that lectio divina includes scriptural commentaries as well as Scripture itself.

In the early Middle Ages, the tendency was more towards commentaries like Bede’s that are a bit more practical and down-to-earth, or Gregory the Great’s that are more geared for monastic life than the sort of commentaries that seek to unpack thorny problems of interpretation like you’ll find amongst scholastics or that are more literary like Cassiodorus.

Every monk is given his own special book to read during Lent. In a largely oral world, the monastery becomes one of the refuges of culture — but that culture in the Early Middle Ages is almost entirely religious. These monks are not consciously ‘saving’ western culture from drowning in a sea of ‘barbarism’. They preserve great works of literature as well as rhetoricians and grammarians to better enable them to read and study the Scriptures and the Fathers as they approach God. Western culture is, at this stage, a by-product of Christian devotion. (See Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.)

So, since it is Lent in a week, let’s think about orienting our reading towards God. And our eating. And our working. Everything we do should be done to the glory of God.

Monks and the goal of reading in the 6th century

I am reading Pierre Riché, Edcuation and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries. Of relevance to my ongoing posts about the Rule of St Benedict is his discussion of reading. First of all, Riché establishes that there was a common Latin Mediterranean monasticism and monastic culture in the sixth century. Then he discusses what monastic education would look like. It is all focussed on what St Benedict calls the ‘school for the Lord’s service‘ — education in asceticism. To that end, they have the Bible and the Fathers and the lives of saints read aloud to them, and they spend time reading these same texts. Not for intellectual growth nor even for understanding as we would think it:

To what end did frequent reading of the Bible and the other texts we have cited lead? Historians have taken quite different and even opposing positions on this subject, especially insofar as the beginnings of Benedictine monasticism are concerned. According to some, monks read the Bible without ever truly appreciating its meaning. Others claim that the monks abandoned themselves to learned study and portray Benedict as the ‘initiator of Biblical studies in the West.’

We have only the texts with which to settle this debate — in particular, the regulae, which speak of lectio, especially of lectio divina and meditatio. But what do these terms mean? The intellectual vocabulary of the period was quite rich but rather imprecise. For example, meditatio, which for the Church Fathers often meant ‘prayer,’ [cites Jerome and Cassian] in the rules meant ‘study,’ especially ‘preparatory study.’ Meditari litterasmeditari psalmos meant to learn to read and to learn the Psalter by reading it aloud in order to become thoroughly familiar with it. [Benedict, Rule of the Master, Cassiodorus] Meditari was also synonymous with legere, which ordinarily meant ‘to read’; but when Benedict spoke of the lectio divina, did he not mean something more than simply reading? Lectio, for the grammarians, was the beginning of interpretation. ‘To read’ the Bible, then, could mean to study it intensively under the direction of the abbot. Was the abbot to explicate the hidden meaning of the Scriptures to the monks and to be, as was said of Achivus of Agaune, an ‘interpretator insignis?’ All that is certain is that the abbot was primarily charged with directing the spiritual and moral life of the monks. He was more a ‘physician for the soul’ than a teacher; a passage in the Regula Magistri portrays him curing an ‘illness’ with words and appropriate readings. I see no place for the establishment of ‘Christian learning’ as Saint Augustine understood it in the ascetic climate described by the regulae.

According to Cassian, who borrowed the thought from Evagrius Ponticus, purity of heart was preferable when learning when it came to delving into the meaning of Scripture. The cenobites of Gaul and Italy remained true to this advice. Caesarius said that humility, obedience, and charity were the primary conditions necessary for lectio and oratio, while Benedict, like Cassian, insisted on ‘puritas cordis.’ Cenobites, beginners in the art of asceticism,[Benedict] were apprentices under the direction of their abbot. Their final goal was real meditatio, the contemplation of God.[Cassian] Legere and meditari mean more ‘to taste’ than ‘to understand.’

Thus the monk’s religious culture was an exclusively ascetic culture. While there is no doubt that Benedict founded an original monastic organization, he was somewhat less original in the realm of religious culture. He compares in this respect more with the Eastern cenobites than with Cassiodorus. This monastic culture, which, as we have described it, was completely opposed to profane culture, was also proposed as a model for clerics. (120-122)

A quick note: This is explicitly a discussion of sixth-century southern Gaul and Italy, not the wider monastic culture that will grow up in Benedictine monasteries and which is described and studied by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.