Watch a medieval scholar work: Florus of Lyon reads Augustine

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 eighth in a series that looks 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.

The blurb to this series may claim that in these articles we get to look over the shoulder of medieval readers of Augustine, but in reality, achieving a vantage point that close to a medieval author, reader, or compiler, is exceedingly rare. A more apt comparison might be that we get to read their ‘best of’ collection, which offers just a hint of their complete works. In some cases, we get to rifle through their wastepaper basket, puzzling together some scraps that have survived the shredder. Only every once in a while, does enough material remain to truly bring to life a person who is long gone. This is the real deal, and when it comes along, historians, paleographers, and editors alike rejoice.

Even with a surviving word count in the excess of 5,000,000 words, Augustine’s oeuvre still contains a few lacunae, works he didn’t write which would have completed his theological, doctrinal, exegetical system. One of the most glaring lacunae, so to speak, is a systematic commentary on Paul’s Epistles. Augustine is considered one of the major conduits for the interpretation of Paul in Western Christianity and Paul’s influence can be detected in Augustine’s stance regarding important theological issues, such as the trinity, sin, grace, predestination, and free will. Given this close connection between the Church Father and the Apostle, and the overwhelming presence of quotations from Paul’s Epistles throughout Augustine’s writings, it certainly is noteworthy that he never wrote a full commentary.

Several authors in the Middle Ages have tried to make up for this lack by compiling an anthology of excerpts in which Augustine discusses Paul. The Venerable Bede, whom we’ve already met in this series, is one of the most important. However, no one did it quite as extensively or successfully as Florus of Lyon, a Carolingian who is certainly in the running for the title of Augustine’s most voracious and attentive reader.

Florus of Lyon lived in the second half of the 9th century. Around 827 he became deacon of the Church of Lyon. He played a prominent role in some of the political and religious disputes of his time, but mostly he was known – far and wide – for his exceptional knowledge of literature, the Bible and the Church Fathers, and for the quality of the Cathedral library of Lyon, for which he was responsible. What makes Florus’ case so special?

A manuscript showing Florus’ style of annotations (Genève, Bibl. Publ. et Univ., Ms. Lat. 16, f. 16v)

He created a masterful anthology

His masterpiece is a monumental ‘Exposition on the letters of Saint Paul from the works of Saint Augustine’. Altogether, Florus amassed 2218 excerpts from over 70 different Augustinian works, a number which becomes even more impressive when we realise that one of these 70 works, ‘the sermons’, in fact covers quotations from nearly 150 different sermons. The list of sources includes several rare works, even a handful of which the only remnants we have are the fragments preserved by Florus. Just imagine the library Florus must have had at his fingertips to accomplish this mammoth of a collection. Equally amazing is the fact that very nearly all of the 200+ works selected by Florus are original, authentic Augustinian works. Given the fact that throughout the Middle Ages, dozens of works and hundreds of sermons were wrongly attributed to the great Church Father Augustine, it is exceptional that Florus managed to steer clear of them. So, any fan of Augustine finds in Florus a kindred spirit, a voracious reader, but also an attentive and critical one.

Another manuscript showing Florus’ style of annotations (Paris, BnF, Lat. 11641, f. 13v)

The manuscripts he used still exist and reveal his notes and compilation system

Considering the fact that this is not his only anthology – not even close – one might wonder whether Florus actually did all the work himself? It is the answer to this question that has palaeographers quite excited. We actually have, still at Lyon, a number of manuscripts that Florus annotated himself and in which he marked the excerpts that needed to go in his massive Augustinian anthology. Here we literally see a medieval scholar at work, not just delineating passages, but correcting the text, retracing letters that had become illegible, changing the punctuation, adding marginal notes that indicate the passages’ designated position in the Pauline commentary. His system is simple enough to implement and interpret and yet allows for sophisticated changes to the source text. Florus did this not just for the 2218 excerpts that made it into his ‘Exposition’. There are manuscripts that contain many more fragments that have been annotated, yet never made it into the anthology. This shows that there was a phase in which Florus puzzled together his anthology and discarded available material that was repetitive or didn’t fit.

We have about 80 manuscript witnesses of the work, including Florus’ own copy

Not only do we have these source manuscripts, we also still have the very first version of the finished product, Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, 484, Florus’ own working copy, partially written in his own hand. This manuscript would make the critical edition of Florus’ ‘Exposition’ a piece of cake for the editors, if it weren’t partially destroyed. Luckily, many more copies of the work are extant. At least three of these, 9th-century copies from Fleury and St-Oyen in France and Sankt Gallen in Switzerland, look so much alike (in terms of arrangement on the page, organisation of the sections of the work etc.) that it is highly likely they were made under direct supervision of Florus or one of his close collaborators. This suggests a deliberate, well-organised programme of distribution of Florus’ interpretation of Augustine. The programme was successful too. Particularly in the later Middle Ages, authors used Florus’ anthology for their own quotes from Augustine, without going back to Augustine’s original works for context. In that sense, Florus was a very influential mediator for Augustine into the later Middle Ages.

Charles the Bald (under whose reign Florus’ activity took place).

While we know and appreciate the work the Carolingians did to preserve, disseminate and study the Church Fathers, it can be hard to imagine in detail how much time and energy it must have cost to build this thriving intellectual culture. Florus of Lyon is a rare example that takes you by the hand through every step of reading, studying, reorganising and copying Augustine in the 9th century and making sure he is available to future generations.

Next month I am taking a short break to enjoy the holiday season. The series continues in February with a look at the medieval interpretation of some of Augustine’s most iconic scenes.

The library of Lyon has a beautiful digital collection of its manuscript holdings at Biblissima is working on a reconstruction of Florus’ personal manuscript collection. You can view a demo at For further reading on Florus, see most recently Pierre Chambert-Protat, Franz Dolveck, Camille Gerzaguet (eds.), Les Douze Compilations Pauliniennes de Florus de Lyon. Un carrefour des traditions patristiques au IXe siècle (Collection de l’École Française de Rome, 524), Rome: École Française de Rome, 2017.

Shari Boodts is Senior Researcher at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, where she directs a European research project on Patristic sermons in the Middle Ages. You can learn more about Shari at her website or page.

Top Image: Lyon, Bibl. Mun., 484 fol.110v (Florus’ original copy of the Exposition)

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