If Only They’d Thought of Me …

One of the inevitable frustrations of working with primary sources is that they don’t always say what you would like them to say. Worse, they don’t take what seem like golden opportunities to say what you’re pretty sure they were thinking, but never seem to actually articulate. It’s almost like they weren’t writing with you, a graduate student roughly 800 years in the future, explicitly in mind!

For example, in my efforts to discover the ‘theological culture’ (for want of a better term) of counsel, I’ve been trawling the Bodleian library catalogues for 12th century biblical commentaries, particularly those written by key intellectual figures, such as Peter the Chanter and Stephen Langton (both writing in Paris). I thought I would start with III Regum (I Kings) 12, a passage in which Rehoboam, son and heir of King Solomon, abandons the counsel of the elders who advised his father and turns instead to the advice of his young friends. It’s a stock exemplum in the medieval period which often crops up in the moral literature written for princes as a clear case of what-not-to-do.

Peter the Chanter’s commentary on the Books of Kings (MS Bodl. 371) perhaps falls short of pure research gold, but it’s headed in, from my perspective, the right direction. For example, commenting on the verse in which Rehoboam ‘took counsel’, he writes, ‘In this he did well, but since he acquiesced [to their counsel], he sinned’,[1] which neatly touches on the very important distinction between listening to counsel and following it. Peter also touches on the danger of having a young ruler, in sense if not in actual age, and his susceptibility to flattery and youthful desires.

Heartened by my progress, I turned to Stephen Langton’s commentary (MS Rawl. C 427). Langton went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury and was involved in the political struggle against King John which led to Magna Carta. (Incidentally, he’s also credited with the modern division of Bible chapters.) Of anyone, you’d think he’d have something interesting to say about bad kings who don’t listen to good advice. Unfortunately, on his commentary of the Rehoboam passage, he is much more interested in the content of the bad advice, i.e. an increase in taxes, as well as the precise nature of Rehoboam’s metaphorical ‘scorpions’ (apparently larger than a scourge, similar to the Saracen scourges with lead balls at the ends, in case you were wondering …), than on providing me with a pithy analysis of the nature of royal counsel.

Of course, any natural disappointment in not finding material is only exacerbated by the fact that each inch of translation from manuscripts is necessarily hard won, following tentative transcription, attempts at translation, refinement of transcription, further attempts at translation, etc. However, considering a year and a half ago I could only admire a medieval manuscript in an aesthetic sort of way, it would seem progress is being made …

[1] Fol. 44r: Iniit [Roboam] consilium, in hoc bene agens, sed quia si adquievit, erravit.




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