The Best (of) Saint 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 fifteenth and final 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.

I started this series with a deceptively simple purpose. I wanted to write about Augustine’s presence in the Middle Ages. A very apt subject for, I thought, as Augustine was famous enough to entice potential readers and his medieval tradition rich enough to provide material for a series of articles. The latter is probably among the graver understatements I have ever uttered, so, obviously, a more specific delineation of the subject was in order.


The question that became a recurrent theme is this series was not ‘Where was Augustine during the Middle Ages?’, but ‘How did he get there?’. It is and will always remain endlessly fascinating to me that a society where everything had to be arduously copied by hand and communicating over long distances was vastly more complicated than it is today, succeeded so admirably in preserving its cultural and religious heritage.

In the final post of the series, I want to stop and reflect again on how it affected Augustine that his oeuvre was transmitted and preserved in a time before the printing press, before the Internet, before fast travel and instant communication. These circumstances have several important consequences and we’ve seen evidence of these consequences all through the series. So, let us look at a few examples of what it meant exactly that Augustine’s oeuvre survived the nearly sixteen centuries since his death.

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

Every manuscript is unique

Copying everything by hand, from a model that may well have been written in an unfamiliar script or was rendered illegible in places means that mistakes are inevitable. Even if the source text was in pristine condition, scribes’ thoughts are sure to have wandered off during their labors to when it was time for lunch. Over the course of the Middle Ages, many different scripts were in use and especially the Carolingian minuscule proved so popular that it replaced older scripts, thereby making the manuscripts that used them redundant. Still, we have seen that quite a few pre-ninth century manuscripts of Augustine survived. These manuscripts are precious to us as incredibly rare historical objects, which have kept intact versions of Augustine’s works that disappeared from later copies.

Every reader is a potential editor

Aside from involuntary human error, it was much easier for medieval scribes working on manuscripts to interfere in the text than it would be for us today. If you as a reader are unhappy with a book’s title, you might scribble a new one in your copy of the book, but who is ever going to adopt it instead of the printed one? In a manuscript, you can write a new title and the next person copying from it will not know the difference. Augustine’s legacy was impacted greatly by medieval readers-cum-editors. We encountered two very important ones. There was Caesarius, the beleaguered bishop of Arles, who used Augustine’s sermons as the basis for his own work and is emerging in current scholarly research as one of the most important mediators for Augustine’s preaching from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. While there are few who would say that Caesarius’ interventions improved Augustine’s sermons, Eugippius is a different story. His chapter divisions, titles, and summaries became an integral part of the manuscript tradition and made Augustine’s work On the literal meaning of Genesis more readable.

There is no standard version

Why would the next reader of a manuscript not know the difference between a work’s original title and the last copyist’s fanciful new invention? Because it was very difficult to verify the information a medieval copyist had before him. Depending on the work, there was a good chance that only one copy of it was present in the library. Augustine had done his readers the favor of leaving lists of his work behind, but for many authors this was not true and especially for smaller works – letters, sermons, small treatises – linking the title in the reference list to the work in the manuscript was challenging. Verifying beyond a shadow of a doubt whether the text before you was complete and accurate was next to impossible. This also meant that Augustine’s oeuvre could be expanded at will. If you were of the gullible sort, you could find ample medieval evidence that Augustine believed in monsters and that he once met the child Jesus at the seaside.

Every choice is important

Today, anyone can instantly throw their thoughts on the Internet. It doesn’t require anything more taxing than typing and pressing ‘send’. I’m oversimplifying of course, but compared to the medieval period, publishing content today is ridiculously easy. Consider that you needed to have a cow or sheep, kill it, go through the complicated process of treating its skin to create parchment, make a pen and ink, painstakingly copy by hand, for hours upon hours, the text you want to publish, bind it together and employ couriers who traveled on foot or on horseback to disseminate your work. Under these circumstances, you would probably think twice about publishing your food diary, or the clothing haul delivered to your doorstep (and don’t the Middle Ages suddenly sound like a blessed age to live!).

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

With over 5,000,000 words, Augustine’s oeuvre was a challenge for the Middle Ages, and one of the solutions was anthologies. Scholars long considered them uninteresting copy-paste collections, but we have come to realize that they are important, because they determined what Augustinian works medieval people had access to. Aside from that, they are downright impressive feats of scholarship in their own right. We’ve encountered several examples, in the works of Bede, who manifested an almost modern case of OCD in his identification of the fragments in his collection, and Florus of Lyon, who managed to collect over 2000 excerpts from Augustine’s works.

After devoting some 15,000 words to Augustine in the Middle Ages over the last year-and-a-half, I believe two things are absolutely certain: Augustine was pretty much everywhere in the medieval period, but – to put it very bluntly – the real, original, authentic Augustine was nowhere. Every reader, compiler, interpreter left his or her trace on Augustine’s journey through history. By the time he got to us, so many layers and filters, both distorting and polishing him, had been piled on Augustine that he was irrevocably altered. However, while the temptation exists to view this alteration as a bad thing, I think that would be a huge mistake. Countless medieval readers of Augustine have created together a superbly impressive, intriguingly enigmatic, and marvelously dynamic collection of different versions of Augustine. I hope this series of articles has convinced you of the fact that these medieval readers are just as worthy of our attention as the great Church Father himself.

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.


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Top Image: Augustine with the two cities – the City of God (a church) and the City of Man (a castle). From Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Typ 228 fol. 1v