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A Tale of Fate and Chance: The Oldest Surviving Manuscripts of Augustine’s Works

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 third 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.

Part of a papyrus from around 700 AD containing a collection of Augustinian sermons – BNF MS Latin 11641

Imagine putting pen to paper today and copying down a text in longhand. What are the chances it will still be around by the year 3500 AD? What would that require?

It would require 45 generations of readers to understand what you copied down and care enough to preserve it. It would require your piece to survive countless political and religious changes, violent conflicts and wars being fought, national borders being drawn and redrawn, religious and cultural shifts changing the priorities and tastes of your readers. It would require sheer dumb luck, to avoid fire, flood, mold, vermin. A single careless reader who misplaces your work could be all it takes to obliviate your words forever. And let’s not forget that you would have needed to use an ink and carrier that could last that long in the first place.

Your piece probably wouldn’t stand a chance, but several manuscripts that survive today have faced all these challenges and emerged victorious – though not unscathed – a millennium-and-a-half after they were created. It is interesting to note that in this area too, we find evidence for Augustine’s exceptional status among his contemporaries. In terms of numbers, here too, he is the most popular of the Christian authors: some 20 manuscripts of his works survive that date to the 7th century AD or before.

This is the story of three manuscripts that are among the oldest in the world. It is not just a story of the context of their origin, but of their readers, owners, handlers – links in a chain that remained unbroken for well over a millennium.

Biblioteca Capitolare /The Capitolare Library of Verona – photo by Lo Scaligero / Wikimedia Commons

In Fair Verona

The city of Verona is home to more than fated Shakespearean lovers: it boasts the oldest library in the world. Founded in the fifth century, the Biblioteca Capitolare preserves treasures from every century of its existence. Its importance as a center of learning and knowledge preservation is illustrated by the fact that Charlemagne sent his son to be educated there and that both Dante and Petrarch visited the library (the latter of whom would discover among its stacks a volume containing Cicero’s letters to Atticus, Quintus, and Brutus, but that is yet another story).

One of its most prized possessions in the oldest manuscript of Augustine’s City of God, ms. XXVIII.26. This copy of books 11 to 16 of Augustine’s magnum opus could actually be contemporary to the author. It is traditionally dated between 420 and 449 AD. Where it was created is unsure – Naples and North Africa are put forth as the main contenders – but by the 9th century it was ensconced among the treasures of Verona (at least, if the identification of marginal annotations in the manuscript with the hand of archdeacon Pacificus of Verona, c. 776-844 is correct), where it still remains today.

Despite being nearly 1600 years old, the Verona copy of the City of God is in good condition. Ironically, the most damage was done in the early 20th century, when overzealous paleographers in the Vatican library used chemical substances to try to recover near-illegible text, effectively burning holes in the parchment.

An example of manuscript corrosion – BNF MS Latin 10439 f.140

‘Pray for me, a sinner’

Finding material evidence that gets this close to Augustine’s own lifetime is exhilarating, but some scholars believe we can do even better and have even discovered a manuscript they believe to have been created under Augustine’s direct supervision.

The National Library of Russia at Saint Petersburg holds a manuscript under number Q. v. 1. 3. It contains four treatises written by Augustine at the beginning of his episcopate, which began in 396, the fourth one being On Christian doctrine. In his Retractions, published in 426, Augustine writes that he only ever finished two-and-a-half books of the planned four On Christian doctrine and will complete the work in the near future – which he did. The Saint Petersburg-codex tellingly only contains the first two books of the work, leading some scholars to believe that it was copied at Hippo at a time when only these two books of On Christian doctrine were ready for publication. The manuscript would then have been intended as a ‘collected works’ of Augustine the Bishop up to that point.

As a little extra, the codex ends with an inscription on folio 152r that reads ‘Read this and pray for me, a sinner, Ag***tinus’. This humble remark has sparked much debate, and while most scholars take a conservative attitude, viewing this as an addition made as late as the 7th century, for a brief moment, we could glimpse the possibility of preserving an actual sample of Augustine’s own handwriting.

On penitence

The most recent of our three examples is a codex fashioned from papyrus which dates to about the year 700 AD. This manuscript contains a collection of 37 Augustinian sermons, known as the sermons On penitence after the first line of the first sermon. The collection was probably assembled in Africa in the 5th century. In the first half of the 6th century it was in Southern France, in the care of Caesarius, Bishop of Arles.

The sermons On penitence found their way to Luxeuil in Eastern France by the end of the 7th century, where they were copied into our papyrus codex. From that moment on, the markings in the manuscript tells us where it has been. Some 150 years after its creation in Luxeuil, the papyrus codex was in Lyon, in the hands of Florus, a preeminent Carolingian scholar (who will surely be mentioned again in this series). He annotated the papyrus codex in his own hand, retracing bits of text that had become illegible and selecting fragments to be part of an Augustinian anthology he was putting together. It probably stayed in Lyon for several centuries, but it did not remain intact. Several leaves got lost over time, and when the manuscript resurfaces again, it is split up in parts, two of which at least were in private hands.  In the 17th century it was in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, one of the manuscripts used by the Benedictines of St Maur for their monumental edition of Augustine’s collected works – their usual practice was to leave tell-tale pencil marks highlighting errors in the text. Today the papyrus codex is divided among three cities: Paris, Genève, and Saint Petersburg. Like layers of sediment, or tree rings, each set of marks and annotations reveals the manuscript’s journey through history.

Seeing one of these rare time capsules in real life is not likely to happen for most of us, but though the paper and ink we use today are no longer made to withstand the centuries, our time is marked by other attempts at immortalizing our culture. Many libraries have invested greatly to make their manuscript treasures digitally available. I invite you to take a look and be inspired:

Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Vatican Library

Next month, we leave Africa behind for good, and move to Castellum Lucullanum near Naples, home to a man who single-handedly changed the fate of Augustine’s legacy.

Further reading: The Capitolare Library of Verona has a great website detailing its history. If you feel so inclined, you can donate to their crowdfunding project to finance the digitization of their manuscript collection.

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.

Click here to read more from the series ‘Augustine in the Middle Ages’

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