Medieval Traditions

Venice: Joannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis, 1498-99
Three volumes

The writings of Boethius (ca. 480-524), Roman philosopher and statesman, constituted the major source from which scholars of the early Middle Ages derived their knowledge of Aristotle. Highly learned and industrious, Boethius hoped to make the works of Plato and Aristotle available to the Latin West and to interpret and reconcile their philosophical views with Christian doctrine. Charged with treason by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, he was executed without trial in 524, never completing his project. In prison he wrote his most popular work, De consolatione philosophiae. Boethius had a profound influence on medieval Scholasticism; his Latin translations of Aristotle's Categoriae and De anima provided the Schoolmen with Aristotelian ideas, methods of examining faith, and classification of the divisions of knowledge.

Isidore of Seville
Venice: Peter Löslein, 1483

Isidore (ca. 562-636), archbishop of Seville, compiled numerous works which were instrumental in the transmission of the learning of classical antiquity to the Middle Ages. Among the most important productions of the "Great Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages" is the Etymologiae, also called the Origines, assembled by Isidore between 622-633. An encyclopedic work, unsystematic and largely uncritical, it covers a wide range of topics, including geography, law, foodstuffs, grammar, mineralogy, and, as illustrated here, genealogy. The title "Etymologiae" refers to the often fanciful etymological explanations of the terms introducing each article. The work became immensely popular and largely supplanted the study of classical authors themselves.

Eusebius Pamphili
Historia ecclesiastica
Italy, fifteenth century

The reputation of Eusebius Pamphili (ca. 260-340), bishop of Caesarea, as the "Father of Church History" rests mainly on his Historia ecclesiastica, issued in its final Greek form in 325. For over a millennium it has served as the major source for the history of the early Church. At the urging of Chromatius (d. 406), bishop of Aquileia, a Latin translation was produced in the late fourth century by Rufinus, presbyter and theologian. Rufinus made numerous changes in Eusebius' account which reflected his own theological stance and historical viewpoint, and introduced additions from original sources which are now lost. The present manuscript dates from the fifteenth century and once belonged to the marquis of Taccone, treasurer to the king of Naples late in the eighteenth century.

Basil the Great
De legendis gentilium libris
Bound with
Vita Sancti Antonii Eremitae
Italy? ca. 1480?

The writings of Basil (329-379) and Athanasius (293-373) exercised great influence upon the development of the ascetic life within the Church. Both men sought to regulate monasticism and to integrate it into the religious life of the cities. De legendis gentilium libris does not deal specifically with monasticism, but is instead a short treatise addressed to the young concerning the place of pagan books in education. The work displays a wealth of literary illustration, citing the virtuous examples of classical figures such as Hercules, Pythagoras, Solon, and others. Moral exhortations are also found in Athanasius' Vita Sancti Antonii Eremitae, a hagiography which awoke in Augustine the resolution to renounce the world and which served to kindle the flame of monastic aspirations in the West. This manuscript edition of the two works, probably originating from fifteenth-century Sicily, was written by Gregorius Florellius, an unidentified monk or friar.

De lapidibus
pretiosis enchiridion
Freiburg, 1531

Precious stones and minerals have long been prized for their supposedly magical and medicinal properties. During the Middle Ages these popular beliefs were gathered under the form of lapidaries, works which listed numerous gems, stones, and minerals, as well as the many powers attributed to them. Marbode (1035-1123), bishop of Rennes, composed the earliest and most influential of these medieval lapidaries, describing the attributes of sixty precious stones. For his work Marbode drew upon the scientific writings of Theophrastus and Dioscorides and the Alexandrian magical tradition. Christian elements, derived from Jewish apocalyptic sources, were not added to lapidaries until the next century. Marbode's work, which became immensely popular, was translated into French, Provençal, Italian, Irish, Danish, Hebrew, and Spanish. This third printed edition is one of five issued in the sixteenth century.

Notabilia dicta
Italy, ca. 1430 ­ 1450

Beginning in the twelfth century, much of the Aristotelian corpus became available for the first time to the Latin West through the medium of Arabic translations. Many Schoolmen were introduced to the philosophy of Aristotle through the extensive commentaries of Averroes (1126­ 1198), the renowned Spanish-Arab philosopher and physician who deeply inflluenced later Jewish and Christian thought. Followers saw implicit in his writings a doctrine of "two truths": a philosophical truth which was to be found in Aristotle, and a religious truth which is adapted to the understanding of ordinary men. This denial of the superiority of religious truth led to a major controversy in the thirteenth century and a papal condemnation of Averroism in 1277. Contained in this Latin manuscript are portions of Averroes' commentaries on Aristotle's De anima and Metaphysica, and his medical tract Al-Kulliyyat.

de medicinis
Naples, Italy, ca. 1500,
with sixteenth-century additions

Throughout the medieval period, the practice of medicine was more of an art than a science and required the preparation of complex "recipes" containing numerous animal, mineral, and vegetable substances. Materiae medicae, herbals, and antidotaries described innumerable recipes for everyday needs and proposed remedies which were believed to cure a wide range of human ailments. Many of the medieval prescriptions combine more than a hundred ingredients. This fifteenth-century materia medica contains prescriptions attributed to Galen (131 ­ 200), Mesuë (776 ­ 857), Avicenna (980-1037), Averroes (1126-1198), and others. Condiments and spices (pepper, ginger, cardamom, oregano) appear in most of the prescriptions, along with such favorites as camomile, mandrake, honey, camphor, aniseed, and gum arabic. Recipes are given for ink, soap, white sugar, hair-restorers and dyes, cosmetics, and colors ­ to name but a few. Remedies are suggested for such ubiquitous woes as dog-bite, headache, and gout.

Blasius of Parma
Questiones super libro methaurorum
Italy, fifteenth century

Blasius of Parma (ca. 1345 ­ 1416), a versatile, eminent, and sometimes controversial scholar, was instrumental in the dissemination and popularization in Italy of the new ideas then being debated by Scholastics at the University of Paris. Best known for his commentaries upon the works of Aristotle and more recent authors, he wrote on mathematics, physics, logic, psychology, theology, astrology, and astronomy. His discussion of Aristotle's Meteorologica found in this manuscript is distinctly anti-Aristotelian in tone and may be traced to the Platonist reaction fostered by the Medici. Blasius, also known as Biagio Pelacani, taught at Pavia, Bologna, and Padua and spent some time at the University of Paris. His wide range of interests anticipates the breed of scholar who would make Italy the center of the early Renaissance.

Book of Hours
(Use of Chalôns-sur-Marne)
Northeastern France, ca. 1400-1410

This Book of Hours is a noteworthy example of fifteenth-century Horae displaying a mixture of Parisian, Flemish, and provincial styles. The pages, adorned with elaborate borders and illuminations, contain ten miniatures depicting episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. The elegant and mannered poses, the wave-form robe motifs, and the aerial perspectives based on graded blue skies are characteristic of early fifteenth-century Parisian illuminations. They contrast with the more provincial elements such as short, stocky figures and rustic faces which can be traced to Flemish influence. Prescribing daily worship periods, these texts served as concise breviaries for the laity. Including a liturgical calendar, psalms, hymns, anthems, and prayers, Horae were frequently produced in fifteenth-century France and Flanders.

Book of Devotions
Germany, fifteenth century

Books of Devotions, such as the example here, express the growth of a new religious consciousness and independence among the lower clerical orders and laity during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The text, probably gathered and copied in or around Mainz between 1450-1475, is a collection of allegorical and devotional meditations, rules, stories, and exhortations. Of note is an allegory concerning Christ and the loving soul, using the metaphor of the human body as a castle, Christ as the master, and the soul as the mistress. Scattered through-out the final leaves are personal notes made by various lay owners of later periods. These include pious phrases in Latin and German; lists of debts and interest paid; the memoranda of one Ernst Lorentz Pauly (d. 1718) concerning his marriage, children, several baptisms, and a murder which occurred in 1669.

Strassburg: Johann Grüninger, 1507

Lay piety found new forms of expression with the rise of printing in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Sources for this Altvaterbuch, a collection of lives of the saints, may be traced to late antique Byzantine hagiographies of the desert Fathers, such as Anthony, Gregory, and Hilary. The exemplary figures described in such traditional works provided personal and immediate sources of inspiration for devoted laity. The Latin Vitae patrum were subsequently translated into vernacular tongues, along with other popular devotional literature. The editions produced by the celebrated printer Johann Grüninger were known for their fine illustrations, usually produced from metal plates instead of the more frequent woodcuts. In order to facilitate the identification of pious readers with the holy figures, the illustrator depicted the Fathers in contemporary garb and placed them at work among the common people.