Editorial practice in Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s commentary on the Rule of St Benedict

Editorial practice in Smaragdus of St Mihiel’s commentary on the Rule of St Benedict

By Matthew D. Ponesse

Early Medieval Europe, Vol.18:1 (2010)

Abstract: This paper examines the editorial principles that guided Smaragdus of St Mihiel (fl. 809–26) in the composition of his commentary on the Rule of St Benedict. Scholars in the late eighth and early ninth centuries actively engaged in an official programme of educational reform that called for the production of accurate texts. Smaragdus’ commentary provides a valuable witness to this movement, revealing how scholars applied grammatical and doctrinal criteria to root out errors in the manuscript tradition. Smaragdus’ concern with the monastic life also draws attention to the importance of considerations of practice and observance in the pursuit of textual authority.

Introduction: The reception and transmission of knowledge in the Carolingian period is a subject that has long been tied to an institutionalized programme of educational reform begun by Charlemagne in the late eighth century. Much is known about the principles and aims of this movement, but questions remain about its implementation, particularly with regard to the activity of scholars who sought out and reworked the teachings of earlier writers for a new generation of readers. The impetus for educational reform can be traced to two documents that sought to improve the quality of education among the clergy: the Epistola de litteris colendis and the Admonitio generalis. The first, a letter sent by Charlemagne to Abbot Baugaulf of Fulda as early as 784, recalls the correspondence of several communities of monks on whose prayers Charlemagne relied for spiritual support.

While Charlemagne notes that the sense of various passages was correct, he laments the uncouth words and improper grammar that adorned them. He attributes the poor quality of their letters to negligence in learning, and urges all monks to attend to their studies so that a simple error in language might not lead to a more grievous error in understanding. The second document, the Admonitio generalis of 789, was more broadly conceived, intending to correct the practice of the clergy in general, but also containing specific articles pertaining to the reception, correction, and dissemination of texts.

Article 72, in particular, directs scholars to seek out canonical books – those written by the church Fathers – so that in reading them all Christians might approach Scripture without falling into doctrinal error. The article also points to the necessity of providing students with well-emended texts, indicating that manuscripts handed down to the current generation had been corrupted through careless transcription.

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