The Medieval Review 13.01.14

Thomson, Rodney M. Catalogue of Medieval Manuscripts of Latin Commentaries on Aristotle in British Libraries, Volume I: Oxford. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2011. Pp. 446. 110 EUR. ISBN: 978-2-503-54232-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Réka Forrai
Central European University, Budapest

The history of medieval philosophy has much to gain from research into the Latin Aristotle commentaries. In 2007 the Bulletin de Philosophie Médievale (49), in their yearly report on The Latin Aristotle and Medieval Latin Commentaries on Aristotle (3-25), gave for the first time an account of these commentaries, bringing them to the forefront of scholarly interest. A Commission for the Latin Aristotle and Medieval Commentaries was established by the The International Society for the Study of Medieval Philosophy (SIEPM) having this group of texts at the center of their investigation. In all these initiatives, great emphasis has been laid on the importance of preparing of critical editions. However, the lack of accurate manuscript catalogues is a serious obstacle for editing the manuscripts. Rodney Thomson's present volume is one attempt to fill this gap by cataloguing Latin Aristotle commentaries in the libraries of Oxford. It constitutes the first part of a four-volume project initiated by the British Academy, which aims to survey all the libraries of Great Britain: the second volume, also prepared by Thomson, will catalog Cambridge libraries; the third volume will focus on London libraries; and the fourth will treat the rest of Britain.

The current volume covers the Bodleian Library and the Oxford college libraries (All Souls, Balliol, Brasenose, Campion Hall, Christ Church, Corpus Christi, Jesus, Lincoln, Magdalen, Merton, New, Oriel, Queen's, St. John's, Trinity, Wadham and Worcester colleges). It surveys 397 manuscripts (including fragments) dating from roughly 1200 to 1500, arranged according to their current locations. The book opens with a short introduction and concludes with several indices: an index of the Aristotelian texts commented upon, an index of commentaries (the anonymous commentaries and the glosses arranged according to the Aristotelian texts), an index of commentary incipits, and a general index (listing, among other things, all authors, medieval and modern owners, scribes and artists). The description of the items is thorough and inclusive, transcribing much precious information about the history of the texts, such as ownership marks, pledge-notes and even some noteworthy pen-trials.

The catalogue includes all works that medieval philosophers would have considered authored by Aristotle: commentaries on works that later were judged spurious are also included. The term "commentary" is also used inclusively, in its widest sense: the catalogue surveys all interpretative manifestations, such as abbreviations of the Aristotelian text, paraphrases, discussions and marginal comments.

In his introduction, Thomson distinguishes between three basic (but not strictly separable) categories of manuscripts. The first type includes English university textbooks, which are further divided in into three subcategories: the small format book, with a writing frame prepared only for the main text, but where commentaries will crowd the margins later; manuscripts designed to contain both texts and commentary; and, finally, the works of the early commentators such as Robert Grosseteste, Adam Buckfield, Richard Rufus, Geoffrey Aspall and Simon of Faversham. Most of these textbooks are to be found in Balliol and Merton Colleges. The second major group includes textbooks of Italian provenance, usually containing only the commentary, the Aristotelian work itself completely missing or present only in form of lemmata. The majority of these texts come from northern Italy, from the universities of Padova and Venice, and are now in the Canonici collection of the Bodleian (from the collection of the eighteenth-century Jesuit Matteo Luigi Canonici). The third major group contains commentaries to be found in books of random content (often bound together at a later period), mostly from the Digby collection of the Bodleian.

According to Thomson, the surviving material is evenly distributed throughout the centuries, although the early glossed material probably represents only a small fraction of what had been a much larger corpus since, by the sixteenth century, it was considered useless and was probably destroyed in significant quantities. Likewise, a disproportionately small number books used by friars seem to have survived. Judging from the number of surviving manuscripts, the most popular commentator had been Walter Burley (48 manuscripts), followed by Albert the Great (36 manuscripts), while the most commented Aristotelian works seem to have been On the Soul and Physics followed by Metaphysics, Meteorology and Ethics.

While the introduction contains a significant amount of necessary and important information, one can't help being disappointed by the shortness of it. Presenting a study of the reception of Latin Aristotle on the British Isles, is, of course, not the task of a manuscript catalogue. However, the compiler of a thematic catalogue necessarily has a unique grasp of the material, having studied an enormous number of manuscripts, and one wishes he shared with the reader not only his factual knowledge, but also more of his insights and interpretation on the material.

The two most important features of this catalogue are the inclusion of anonymous commentaries and the treatment of the marginal notes. Large numbers of the surviving Aristotle commentaries are anonymous. The manuscript Digby 55, for example (125), contains twelve anonymous items, none of which were discussed in the only other catalogue of Latin Aristotle commentaries (Charles H. Lohr, "Medieval Aristotle Commentaries", in Traditio, 23 (1967): 313-413, 24 (1968): 149-245, 26 (1970): 135-216, 27 (1971): 251-351, 28 (1972): 281-392, 29 (1973): 93-197, 30 (1974): 119-144, arranged according to authors). Listing and describing these items in the catalogue is an essential step for future possible identifications of their authors and their milieu. Also, because he justly treats marginalia as a type of commentary, Thomson includes in the catalogue manuscripts of Aristotelian texts, which were heavily, if erratically, glossed. A good example of such a manuscript is the Corpus Christi College 236.111,or the Canonici Class. Lat. 291 from the Bodleian Library (64-65), which features several glossators heavily annotating on the margins, one of them even in Greek. The recovery of such marginalia will be essential to a full picture of the medieval reception of Aristotle.

This catalogue is an indispensable tool for scholars of medieval philosophy and intellectual history alike. Hopefully the three subsequent volumes will soon follow.