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Augustine and the Master of the Sentences

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 tenth 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.

If you were a university student in the later Middle Ages and you wanted to obtain a degree in Theology, there was a specific requirement you had to fulfill: you had to write a commentary on a book titled the ‘Sentences’, by a man named Peter Lombard. This commentary can be considered roughly the equivalent of today’s dissertation. This practice to comment on Lombard’s Sentences as the culmination of a university education in Theology remained in vogue for approximately five centuries and the number of commentaries produced in this way was enormous. There are over 1000 extant commentaries stemming from the medieval period, and the practice continued in early modern times as well. This begs the question, what were the Sentences exactly, who was Peter Lombard and what did he have to do with Augustine?

A self-made man

Peter Lombard’s life story is an inspiring one. Of humble origins, he was born in a small rural town in Italy – hence the name ‘Lombard’ – around the turn of the 12th century. Like Augustine, Peter’s potential and intelligence were recognized and nurtured by powerful patrons. He was brought to the attention of Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most authoritative figures in the Church at the time. His patronage allowed Peter to study at the cathedral school of Reims and complete his education in Paris. By the middle of the 12th century, Peter Lombard was a respected and even famous teacher. He was invited to become a member of the canons of Notre Dame, a group of powerful, extremely well-connected men, of noble and often even royal lineage. Peter stands out among this group as a relative nobody given his insignificant background, but this did not stop him from continuing his rise through the ecclesiastical ranks.

In 1159 he was made Bishop of the city of Paris. The story goes that he was not the first choice to fill the position. The younger brother of King Louis VII, Philip, then archdeacon of Notre Dame, was elected by the canons. He, however, is said to have declined the see in favor of his teacher, Peter Lombard. He wasn’t Bishop for long, however. It appears he died about a year after his elevation to the bishopric, in 1160 or thereabouts.

Sententiae (The Sentences), Bibliotheque Municipale at Troyes MS900, fol. 1r

A matter of opinions

Peter Lombard compiled the Sentences in the later part of his life, starting probably around 1147 and completing a second version by 1158. The Latin ‘sententiae’ literally translates as ‘opinions’, ‘judgments’, ‘arguments’. Very simply put the four books of Sentences hold a compilation of the Church Fathers’ thoughts and opinion on religious topics, organized thematically. However, this description does not do justice at all to the amazing feat accomplished by Peter Lombard and does not reveal the reason the work became the standard textbook of theology for the later Middle Ages.

The idea of a compilation of ‘sentences’ was already familiar from the glosses on the Bible. These glosses were – often marginal or interlinear – annotations to the Bible, explaining and elucidating anything from rare words to core questions of Christian doctrine. Lombard’s Sentences are a huge compilation of glosses and anthologies arranged into four books: on God and the Trinity, on Creation, on Christ and on the Sacraments. The idea was to provide easy access to a wide range of authoritative ideas, for use in school contexts. The merit of the work lies not so much in the originality of the material. Lombard only infrequently intervened. When putting contradictory views on a certain topic side by side, Peter might propose a solution, but he would not mask the existence of different points of view or radically dismiss one of them.

The true merit of the Sentences lies in the structure into which Peter Lombard arranged all these ‘opinions’. The compilation is considered the crowning achievement of the 12th-century effort to systematically arrange all authoritative commentaries on all important theological issues. Peter Lombard inherited a tradition of commenting on the Bible and on Christian doctrine that had accumulated over the past millennium. He undertook the gargantuan task of organizing this vast tradition into a coherent, uniform, highly structured theological system. Issues addressed in the Sentences range from thorny and abstract questions such as ‘Is it obvious that God exists?’ and ‘Has the world existed from eternity or was it created at a certain moment in the past to more practical matters such as ‘Must a marriage be consummated in order to be binding?’. It is a “full-scale theological system, with a place for everything and everything in its place.”

A page from a 12th century manuscript of the Sentences – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 3021 fol.1r

A kaleidoscope of Augustinian splendor

Augustine is the predominant authority cited in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, laying claim to a whopping 719 citations in the work. He takes first place by a huge margin: the second most quoted source, Ambrose, is quoted only 66 times. So, one would assume that Peter Lombard knew and had read a large part of Augustine’s oeuvre, like Florus of Lyon, one of the other great medieval compilers of Augustine’s work.

However, that assumption would be very wrong. It would appear that Lombard only knew four Augustinian works directly – and not even the most important of Augustine’s theological writings. Everything else Peter Lombard sourced via earlier anthologies, such as Florus’ Expositio, and other sentences collections, such as the Glossa Ordinaria, the standard gloss on the Bible. This great work, Lombard’s Sentences, a staple of medieval thinking about religion and the key text used in the later Middle Ages to access Augustine’s doctrine had had virtually no direct contact with Augustine’s own works. Nearly everything was mediated, filtered, reframed by medieval readers and interpreters of Augustine’s work. To add insult to injury, quite a bit of inauthentic texts slipped in unnoticed.

Together, the excerpts selected by Lombard to feature in the Sentences constitute the standard corpus of authoritative Augustinian texts, the bedrock of a theological system that would endure for over 500 years. As such, the Sentences are in essence a kaleidoscope. Each fragment represents a piece of Augustine. Together, they form a brilliant, beautifully structured, multifaceted image, perhaps more artfully arranged than what Augustine produced himself. However, there is a consequence to this magnificent tradition of interpreting and discussing Augustine’s ideas. During this process the ‘human’ Augustine, the man who made mistakes, who changed his mind, who did not have it all figured out just yet and repeatedly said so in his writings, slowly faded into the background, obscured by the colorful kaleidoscopic structures constructed from his words.

The Lombard’s legacy

Peter Lombard’s legacy was extraordinary. Only rarely has a single work invited such long-lasting discussion and commentary as the Sentences. Apart from the Bible, no other work of Christian literature was commented upon more often Lombard’s Sentences. The list of commentators reads like a Who’s who of the great medieval thinkers and philosophers: Saint Bonaventure (1217-1274), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), and even Martin Luther (1483-1564) all wrote commentaries on Lombard’s magnum opus. It was “the enduring classic, the standard introduction to systematic theology in the medieval university curriculum.” Given the prominence of Augustine as an authority in the Sentences, Peter Lombard certainly did him a favor: he cemented Augustine’s status as the unassailable authority. Lombard’s view of Augustine influenced countless students of theology at medieval universities, who all got their first taste of theology through his systematically organized answers to Christianity’s core questions.

Further reading: Ph. W. Rosemann, The story of a great medieval book. Peter Lombard’s Sentences, Peterborough, 2007, T. M. Finn, ‘Sex and marriage in the Sentences of Peter Lombard’, Theological Studies 72 (2011), 41-69.

Next month we will look at the Rule of St. Augustine, the monastic orders who followed it and how they contributed to Augustine’s medieval image. Click here to read more about Augustine and the Middle Ages.

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 Academia.edu page.

Top Image: Peter Lombard writing, in Peter Lombard’s Sentences. British Library MS Yates Thompson 17 f. 42v 

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