I have to confess, prior to about a month and a half ago, I hadn’t ever read much Aristotle. Not only that, but while I would confidently nod my head in agreement when someone else mentioned ‘the significant impact of the translation of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century’, I only had a somewhat vague idea of what this impact actually was (unaided by the fact that many medieval historians writing on the topic seem to assume you already know and therefore spare themselves the effort of going into any detail).
This gap in my knowledge became readily apparent when I attempted to summarize medieval virtue ethics in an essay for my supervisor and more-or-less concluded with the formal essay equivalent of ‘…. and then Aristotle happened, and … things?’
Needless to say, I was sent away to acquaint myself with the Philosopher, more particularly with his Nicomachean Ethics.
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!
I found approaching canon law for the first time for historical research more than a little tricky, so I thought I would distill some of the most helpful ‘starter’ information I found on the way for anyone else embarking on it. (For more detail on what I was actually looking for, see my earlier post.)
In a (not so) recent post, I was complaining about remarking on the difficulties I’ve encountered deciphering the early modern printed editions of the canon law texts I’m working with. Today I thought I’d focus on what canon law is and why I’m hoping these texts will be worth the effort.
I’ll start by giving some general background on canon law and then dive into a more detailed discussion of an example from my own research.
Humbert de Romans is surprisingly overlooked as a historical figure, given his influence in the early shaping of the Dominican Order in the mid-thirteenth century.
Elected as the fifth Master-General of the Dominican Order in 1254, only a few decades after the Order had been established, Humbert reorganized and thereby standardized the Dominican liturgy, had a new edition of the Order’s Constitutions prepared, drew up new Constitutions for the nuns associated with the Order, and wrote a number of influential and—for modern historians—informative works concerning the operations of the Order.
Some of his key works include:
De eruditione praedicatorum (On the Instruction of Preachers) – Reflecting contemporary changes in the makeup of society, Humbert writes of sermons preached ad omne genus hominum (to every type of person), taking into consideration the dominant circumstances of the audience and varying the sermon accordingly. He also discusses the value of private conversation for edification.
De officiis ordinis (On the Offices of the Order) – A very informative treatise on each of the various types of officials within Dominican convents, from the master-general down.
De dono timoris (On the Gift of Fear), a.k.a. Tractatus de habundantia exemplorum (Treatise on a Wealth of Examples)– A highly popular collection of hundreds of exempla, or illustrations, for use in sermons, around the topic of one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Humbert de Romans’ collected Latin works can be found in Opera de vita regulari, edited by J. J. Berthier (Rome, 1888). His Treatise on Preaching has been translated into English by Walter M. Conlon (London, 1955).
The most useful secondary work in English is probably Edward Tracy Brett’s Humbert of Romans: His Life and Views of Thirteenth-Century Society (Toronto, 1984), which includes a summary of each of Humbert’s works.
Estoire des Engleis (“History of the English”) is the oldest surviving work of historiography in the French vernacular, composed sometime after 1135 under the patronage of Constance FitzGilbert, the wife of a minor Lincolnshire nobleman. It describes the history of England starting from Cedric of Wessex’s landing on its shores in 495 and continuing all the way through the death of the Anglo-Norman king William II in 1100. Although Gaimar was a learned cleric, he composed his history in French verse, rather than in Latin prose, presumably for the better entertainment and edification of his aristocratic audience.
Medieval bestiaries are essentially animal encyclopedias, ranging in subjects from the domestic cat, to the exotic elephant, to the fantastic phoenix or griffin. They were more theological than scientific in nature, focusing on the moral or allegorical dimensions of the natural world. Loads of fun to be had on these sites clicking through the indexes of animals or admiring the beautifully illuminated illustrations.
This week I requested my first manuscripts from Special Collections – which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you take into account that this involves a Bodleian librarian cheerfully handing over 800-year-old books into my grubby carefully scrubbed hands.
An incredible thirteenth-century chronicle intersecting the genres of biography, hagiography, and autobiography. Ostensibly a record of the life of Louis IX of France, later canonized Saint Louis, eyewitness Jean de Joinville adds a good deal of his personal thoughts, experiences, and perspectives, making this one of the most interesting and personal of medieval primary sources.
Image: Saint Louis embarks from France in 1248 on the disastrous Seventh Crusade.
(Mis)Adventures of a Medieval History Student at Oxford