On Early Medieval Monasticism for Understanding Western Patristics

Initial Disclaimer

These are some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head for quite a while and have gelled as I prepare for my dissertation defense and consider my on-going course of study and research. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here; in fact, somebody in one of the fields that touches on mine may have already said this in a more lucid form (perhaps it’s lurking in de Lubac) and if so I’d love to be directed to it.

The Main Thought

Understanding early medieval monasticism, its goals and means of theological transmission, is crucial for understanding the spread, development, and impact of the study of the Church Fathers on the Western Church.  Without understanding the monks, you miss the ways that they shaped and directed how the West encountered the Fathers.

Unpacking That A Bit

The Church Fathers, those bishops and teachers who led the Church for the first five or so centuries, wrote widely and variously. That is, we have a wide variety of genres (the most common being homilies, letters, disputations [especially against heretics of various stripes], and treatises). Note the nature of the first three—these are fundamentally occasional genres; they address a particular situation in the life of a particular church although they may well have larger implications.

I debate whether to put “commentaries” on the list. Many of the commentaries that we know are not commentaries in a modern sense but, rather, are homilies grouped and arranged—sometimes within the author’s lifetime and by their hand, sometimes afterward and by another.

My central point here is that the majority of patristic writings are occasional as opposed to systematic; we lack syntheses from the early period. The closest would be some of the catechetical writings of Cyril, Ambrose, and Augustine.

The early medieval monks in their process of copying manuscripts began the important work of synthesis necessary to grasp and communicate the fullness of the occasionally oriented patristic wisdom. Key early figures who I would point to as central in this transition would be Cassiodorus, John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and Gregory the Great.

The synthetic task consists of two major components with a common source: selecting key works that lead to 1) amalgamating similar or common thoughts and emphases and 2) creating secondary works built from selections of primary works. The first may be found in the treatises and homilies of the early medieval monastics, the second in their homiliaries (taking that category broadly) that then flowed into glosses. At the root, though, is the initial selection of sources.

Picking up the second in particular, I remain convinced that most patristic wisdom in the West came through the early homiliaries, reaching fixed form in the works of Paul the Deacon’s homiliary and Smaragdus’s catena on the Gospels and Epistles. I believe that a study of existing manuscripts will bear this out. That is, few monasteries and cathedrals owned many volumes of patristic writings, rather, they may have owned a few—a treatise or two by Augustine, Gregory’s Gospel Homilies and Letters—but obtained most of their patristic learning from the homiliaries as transmitted in the Night Office and in holy reading.

Paul the Deacon’s homiliary, especially with the support of the Carolingian court, became the standard collection that formed the heart of the breviary tradition up to Vatican II. This point is argued and documented by Smetana. Thus the items included in Paul the Deacon, supplemented by Smaragdus, became the most widely distributed and most widely known and therefore the most widely cited patristic texts. Smetana argues this, IIRC, but does not marshal the data to demonstrate it.

I don’t have data to demonstrate it yet either, but knowing the ways in which Ælfric and Haymo used Paul the Deacon and Smaragdus in creating their own synthetic homilies, I do believe that it can be shown (especially given new collations of manuscript data and placement as in Godden’s recent work on Anglo-Saxon libraries).

Thus Paul the Deacon is single-handedly responsible for the selection of patristic texts that most educated members of the Western Church learned. Furthermore, Paul incorporated a number of monastic synthetics; Gregory and Bede are at the core of his homiliary. Their own selections and syntheses further concentrated the patristic streams and themes transmitted to later periods.

Both the Scholastic period and the Renaissance re-discovered certain patristic writings, working them back into the western church. Nevertheless, this rediscovery was always in relation to the Tradition’s core synthesized and transmitted by the monastics and the breviary.

The Final Pay-Off

Thus, the early medieval monastic movement is responsible for selecting and fore-grounding particular issues, themes, and authors that have come to represent the main lines of patristic thought to the modern Western Church.


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