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 twelfth 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.
Of headless men and one-eyed giants
In the Later Middle Ages, an Augustinian sermon circulated that rather damages the present-day reputation of its author as a rational, intelligent, well-thinking man. At the end of the sermon we read the following:
“I was already Bishop of Hippo, when I went into Ethiopia with some servants of Christ there to preach the Gospel. In this country we saw many men and women without heads, who had two great eyes in their breasts; and in countries still more south, we saw people who had but one eye in their foreheads.”
The exceptional creatures Augustine describes here were not unknown to medieval audiences. The first were known as ‘Blemmyae’. Described already in Pliny’s Natural History, they regularly appeared in the romances featuring Alexander the Great, who encountered them during his conquests in the East. If one has trouble imagining what a headless creature with his eyes at the height of his breast looks like, medieval illuminators are only too happy to oblige. The Blemmyae feature prominently among some of the most breathtaking manuscript illustrations of the Middle Ages. The second of the miraculous peoples Augustine witnessed no doubt sounds less strange to the modern ear. The Cyclops is a well-known antagonist in Homer’s Odyssey, after all. In medieval illustrations the one-eyed giant did not, as a rule, receive special treatment, but was lobbed together with similar monstrous peoples lacking limbs (Sciapods) or outfitted with animal features (Cynocephali).
Side note – For the interested, the Sciapods were people with only one, giant foot, which they used as an impromptu parasol against the burning sun while lying on their back. They were very fast runners, despite the fact that their knee couldn’t bend. The Cynocephali had human bodies topped with the head of a dog, who spoke two words and barked the third and had a predilection for raw meat.
Despite the abundant presence of these monstrous races in late-antique and medieval folklore, natural history, and the encyclopedic tradition, it is understandably hard for us to believe that Augustine would testify to having actually seen them with his own eyes.
Of course, he didn’t.
The sermon that makes this outrageous claim is a fake. It is one of hundreds, if not thousands of sermons that circulated in the Middle Ages using Augustine’s illustrious name as a way to guarantee a wide readership and make a bid for literary immortality. For this particular sermon it worked spectacularly well.
The Sermones ad fratres in eremo
In my previous column, we encountered the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine as they gained joint custody, together with the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, of the bones of Augustine at Pavia. The subsequent squabble that broke out over who could lay claim to the veneration of the relics – and the accompanying revenues – was not one of the Order’s finest moments. The episode was symptomatic of the ongoing struggle between the Canons and the Hermits over who were the ‘true’, ‘original’ Augustinians.
One of the strongest weapons the Hermits used to assert their dominance was a collection of sermons, the Sermones ad fratres in eremo or ‘sermons to the brothers in the desert’. In this collection we meet an Augustine who fiercely promotes monastic life and gives advice and guidelines on how to live it. Crucially, we also find among these sermons historical proof of the fact that Augustine himself founded the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine. A winning argument in favor of the Hermits, were it not for one tiny detail: almost all of the Sermones ad fratres in eremo are fake. We first encounter a cluster of 23 sermons in 1343, when an Augustinian Hermit, Jordan of Quedlinburg, donated them to the library of the Hermits’ headquarters in Paris. This is one of a number of clues that hint at the fact that the Hermits themselves composed a significant number of the sermons.
The most successful forgery of Augustine’s voice in the Middle Ages
The Sermones ad fratres in eremo became wildly popular in the later Middle Ages. Today, we know of at least 424 extant manuscripts containing the Latin collection, and the number is probably much higher (especially if we take into account vernacular translations). As such, this sermon collection is probably the most successful forgery of Augustine’s voice in the Middle Ages. After all, it doesn’t really matter if Augustine wrote them or not, what matters is that people believed he did. In fact, it knew a wider circulation than the authentic monastic Rule that Augustine left for us, so here is an example of a fake being more powerful in a certain time and place than the original message Augustine propagated regarding the way members of his order should live. By 1495, when they were printed as part of Augustine’s Opera omnia by Johannes Amerbach, the collection of twenty-something items had swollen to 76 sermons, among them the sermon in which Augustine claims to have seen headless men and women.
The Sermones ad fratres in eremo did not go unquestioned. From the beginning, their authenticity of was an issue of contention. Still, hundreds of years later, Augustine’s claim that he saw the Blemmyae with his own eyes was taken at face value in some very odd places. It shows up in the 1770 issue of a London-based ‘Monthly Review or, Literary Journal’, in an article which reviews a book of ‘Philosophical Enquiries concerning the Americas’. Here the author states that the habit of weighing down the heads of infants to shorten the neck, found with some native peoples of the Americas, could explain what Augustine had seen. In 1842, the passage is quoted in a medical tome on birth defects by the not-so-aptly named Dr. W. Vrolik (Dutch for ‘Happy’). So, it is safe to say, this one forged medieval sermon had a very long reach.
So…did he, or didn’t he?
Faced with these dubious scientific insights, the final question remains: Did Augustine believe in Monsters? The disquieted reader may rest assured. In his City of God (16.8) the real Augustine displays a clear-eyed, down-to-earth view on the matter of the monstrous:
“We are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities. But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that first man, Adam. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.”
As we near the end of the Middle Ages, we are also nearing the end of this series. Three more posts to go, and coming up next month, Augustine’s influence on the early humanists.
Eric L. Saak, Creating Augustine. Interpreting Augustine and Augustinianism in the Later Middle Ages, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012;
Eric L. Saak, ‘On the Origins of the OESA: Some Notes on the Sermones ad fratres suos in eremo’, Augustiniana 57 (2007), 89-149
Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of our Worst Fears, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.
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: Livre de merveilles, manuscript of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, fr. 2810, fol. 29v