Augustine in print: leaving the Middle Ages behind?

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 fourteenth and penultimate post 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.

Having arrived at the printed book, this series of articles on Augustine in the Middle Ages is surely stretching, if not flat-out crossing, its self-imposed boundaries. The transition from manuscript to printed book is certainly a highly visible, even defining moment in the shift from the medieval period to the Renaissance. Still, does this transition constitute a true breaking point on all levels? Does the reception of Augustine fundamentally change when it is no longer the scribe, but the printer who holds the reins? It is a big question for a short blogpost, but that has never stopped us before. So, let us find out what the early printers of Augustine have to tell us about their reading of the Church Father’s works.


The incunabula

When printing with movable type took off with the Gutenberg Bible, it took off fast. Gutenberg set up his print shop in Mainz in 1448 and started producing his Bibles in the early 1450’s. By 1464, less than a decade later, the first Italian printing press was set up in a Benedictine monastery in Subiaco, operated by German monks. Three years later an emigrant from Vienna was the first to set up a printing shop in Rome. By the middle of the 1470’s books were being produced in Spain and England. By 1480, a quarter century after Gutenberg’s invention, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands were home to over 60 printing shops.

This first, exhilarating wave of printing, of which the results are called ‘incunabula’, took Augustine along for the ride. Generally, there are two contenders for the first printing of Augustine. Often mentioned is Augustine’s City of God, printed in 1467 in Subiaco, with a reprint in Rome in 1468 and again in 1470. Depending on the accuracy of the dating, it could also be the fourth book of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine – essentially as a manual on preaching – printed in Strasbourg in 1466 (?) or in Mainz in 1467. By the end of the century, about half of Augustine’s oeuvre was printed, several times over, in different places in Europe. Unsurprisingly, Augustine appears to have been high on the list of priorities for the early printers.


The real Augustine?

Of course, our investigation of the first edition of an Augustinian work departs from what we know to be Augustinian works. This does not necessarily align with what the fifteenth-century printers consider to be Augustinian. In fact, the first printing with Augustine’s name on the title page was more likely produced before 1466 (?) in Mainz by Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer – the former of whom allegedly put Gutenberg out of business and even had to contend with an accusation of witchcraft when people started to notice that his Bibles all looked suspiciously alike. The work Fust and Schöffer printed was Augustine’s famous classic De vita Christiana, ‘On Christian life’. For those of you who are now confused – rest assured, I can immediately confirm your suspicions: De vita Christiana was not actually written by Augustine.

In an ironic twist of monumental proportions, the first mass-distributed Augustinian text was, many scholars believe, written by none other than Augustine’s arch-nemesis, the convicted heretic Pelagius. This was not an isolated case. The earliest editions of Augustine’s preaching in the 1470’s print collections that consist mostly or entirely of sermons wrongly attributed to the Church Father (Cologne, Augsburg, Modena). The printed book on the surface inspires more confidence in us than the manuscript – no more drowsing scribes making mistakes that cripple the accuracy of every unique copy – but as the example of Augustine’s incunabula illustrates, that reliability is deceptive and the medieval tradition of attributing works to the great name of Augustine, remains very much alive in the era of the printed book.

Just like manuscripts: Like the texts they contained, the actual physical books in that early stage also had a lot in common with the manuscripts. Customers buying early printed books could get initials drawn in by hand. Some of these were highly decorated and very much in the style of the manuscripts of the time. The two forms of book production intermingled in those early days. We have several examples of manuscripts copied by hand from an early printed book, which seems so counterintuitive to us now, that scholars long thought the manuscripts were the models for the editions, instead of the other way around.

Opera Omnia

If the stage of the incunabula was in some ways a continuation of manuscript book production, the new medium also quickly gave rise to some changes. For Augustine, one of the new developments was the drive to produce editions of his collected works. The first of these appeared in the first decade of the sixteenth century. Johann Amerbach had already printed, in 1489 to 1495 in Basel, editions of the City of God, On the Trinity, Augustine’s letters and two collections of sermons. In 1505-1506 he added the rest of Augustine’s oeuvre to produce the first opera omnia edition, in eleven volumes.

As we’ve established, Augustine’s oeuvre consists of some 5,000,000 words, so this was a huge job. Several collaborators of Amerbach traveled to different libraries to find manuscripts of rare works. The texts were usually based on younger manuscripts and not always of good quality. The order of the works was that of Augustine’s own catalogue of his works, the Retractationes. For the large corpus of sermons (which are not listed in the Retractationes), Amerbach printed collections as he found them in the manuscripts, a practice which would be followed pretty religiously until the seminal edition of 1683-1684 produced by the Benedictines of St. Maur. Four of the seven collections of sermons in Amerbach’s edition contained a large quantity of inauthentic material. This was the start of a long tradition of opera omnia-editions, one of which was the work of Erasmus, who completed his edition, printed also in Basel, by Johann Froben, in 1528-1529.


The advent of printing must have heralded a time of rapid changes and sensational possibilities, not unlike the rise of the internet in our own times, and Augustine seems to have been as relevant to Renaissance printers as he had been, for many centuries, to medieval monks. Many of the printers, like many scribes before them, didn’t seem to give a great deal of thought to the accuracy of the author attribution they found in the manuscripts. Why would they? Augustine’s name clearly sold books. A solid millennium after his death, Augustine had never been more readily available to the public, but at the same time the greatness of his legacy also obscured him from view.

Next month’s instalment, the fifteenth, will conclude this series, with the final post dedicated to some key threads we’ve encountered while following Augustine’s journey through the Middle Ages.

Further reading:

K. Jensen, ‘Reading Augustine in the fifteenth century’, in S. Corbellini (ed.), Cultures of Religious Reading in the Late Middle Ages: Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion (Turnhout, 2013), 141-174


R.F Evans, ‘Pelagius, Fastidius, and the Pseudo-Augustinian ‘De Vita Christiana’, The Journal of Theological Studies, N.S. 13, No. 1 (1962), 72-98.

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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: De civitate dei, Holzschnitt auf der Titel-Rückseite. Basel, Petri für A. Koberger (Nürnberg), 1515