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5,000,000 words: How St. Augustine’s works made it into the Middle Ages

By Shari Boodts

Saint Augustine (354-430) is one of the most influential thinkers of the Western World. His answers to life’s profound questions shaped Western civilization to an unparalleled degree. How did the Middle Ages come to know this great Father of the Church? How did his large oeuvre survive the nearly sixteen centuries since his death? This is the first in a series that will look over the shoulder of medieval readers to discover how they shaped Augustine’s legacy, and created an image of the man that has endured to our times.

13th century depiction of Augustine of Hippo refuting the heretic – Wkiimedia Commons

When he died on 28 August 430, nearly 76 years of age, Augustine of Hippo was one of the greatest celebrities in the world. During his long career, which began with a forced ordination to the priesthood in 391, he rose to a position of prominence among North-African clergy, he clashed with some of the major heresies of his time and produced an immense oeuvre which greatly impacted the still-young Christian religion.

Today, nearly 1600 years after his death, Augustine’s star continues to shine brightly. He is hailed as the founder of Western theology, but also as a great contributor to fields as diverse as psychology, postcolonialism and political theory. How is it that he was able to exert such a profound and lasting influence on Western society?

The key to his continued success lies for a large part in his writings, and in the painstaking diligence with which the Middle Ages preserved them. Copied from manuscript to manuscript, mutilated, summarized, and expanded, Augustine’s works have fed his legacy throughout the medieval period, creating an almost untouchable aura of authority around the bishop of Hippo.

To start this series and trace Augustine’s works in the hands of medieval readers, we go back to the beginning, with four facts that kickstarted the long journey Augustine’s oeuvre would make to traverse the Middle Ages. What happened to his works during his lifetime and shortly after his death?

The theft of On the Trinity

Augustine disseminated his writings during his lifetime through a vast network of correspondents. His letters indicate that his works reached not only North Africa, Italy, Spain, and Southern Gaul, but also the Eastern, Greek part of the Roman Empire. Some of his highly anticipated works like the City of God were probably distributed in a serialized format, with books appearing as soon as they were completed.

Augustine’s fame was such that he was even the subject of literary piracy. He tells the story of how unfinished drafts of his work On the Trinity were stolen and disseminated against his wishes:

“I spent some years in writing fifteen books concerning the Trinity, which is God. When, however, I had not yet finished the thirteenth book, and some who were exceedingly anxious to have the work were kept waiting longer than they could bear, it was stolen from me in a less correct state than it either could or would have been had it appeared when I intended. And as soon as I discovered this, having other copies of it, I had determined at first not to publish it myself, but to mention what had happened in the matter in some other work; but at the urgent request of brethren, whom I could not refuse, I corrected it as much as I thought fit, and finished and published it, with the addition, at the beginning, of a letter that I had written to the venerable Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, in which I set forth, in the way of prologue, what had happened, what I had intended to do of myself, and what love of my brethren had forced me to do.” (Retractions II, 15)

Secretaries in church

As bishop, Augustine had a duty to preach and he did so with astonishing frequency. We preserve today over 800 of his sermons, and this number is estimated at only 10% of what he actually preached throughout his career.
Augustine did not prepare a written form of his sermons before orally delivering them to his congregation. The sermons are preserved because secretaries, called ‘tachygraphs’, were present in the church and took shorthand-notes while he preached. These accounts were then gathered in collections and preserved in the library at Hippo or in some of the other cities where Augustine visited to preach, such as Carthage, the capital of Roman North Africa.

Augustine’s sermons drew huge crowds and some of his listeners employed their own tachygraphs to make an account of the sermon, much like we today would take pictures of a performance we attend.

Two bibliographies

Augustine’s oeuvre is the largest of any ancient author extant today with a sum total of about five million words. The fact that his oeuvre has survived to today relatively intact is due in part to the fact that he himself provided an aid for future generations to recognize and authenticate his works.

The Retractions is an annotated bibliography of sorts, which Augustine compiled a few years before his death. In it, he gives an overview of his works in chronological order and criticizes his younger self, indicating what he didn’t like about each work or would have done differently.

Unfortunately, the Retractions are not complete. However, shortly after Augustine’s death, a close friend and former disciple of his, Possidius of Calama (c. 370-after 437), wrote a biography of his mentor to which he attached the so-called Indiculus, a list of Augustine’s works organized according to heresies and adversaries he fought in them.

Together, these two bibliographies provided the ideal reference work for medieval scholars seeking to put together a complete Augustinian collection.

Vandal cavalryman in a Mosaic pavement from British museum. Excavated at Bordj-Djedid in 1857 (Tunisia). Date: 5thC(late)-6thC(early)

The Vandal invasion

In the first half of the fifth century AD Augustine was famous and his works widely available, with strategies in place to ensure their survival. However, there was a formidable obstacle his oeuvre needed to overcome in order to survive: when Augustine died in 430 the city of Hippo was under siege.

The Vandals, a Germanic tribe who subscribed to the Christian heresy of Arianism, had invaded North Africa the year before and laid waste to the fertile province. In the Spring of 430 they started a siege of Hippo, which was ultimately unsuccessful. During a second attack, a short while later, they succeeded in breaching the city, which was partially burned. Miraculously, Augustine’s library was spared.

The Vandals continued their domination of North Africa for a century, but by then Augustine’s library had safely crossed the Mediterranean.

Shari Boodts is a postdoctoral fellow at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. You can learn more about Shari at her website or Academia.edu page.

Further reading: Karla Pollmann (ed.), The Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine, 3 vols., Oxford 2013.

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