The Medieval Review 13.06.15

Kaylor, Jr., Noel Harold and Philip Edward Phillips. A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pp. xxii, 661. $274.00. ISBN: 978-90-04-18354-4. . .

Reviewed by:

Shane Bjornlie
Claremont McKenna College

In 524 AD the execution of the prominent Roman senator and scholar Boethius created a personality that later enjoyed uncommon celebrity throughout the Middle Ages. The posthumous circulation of Boethius' scholarly and theological works, especially the De consolatione philosophiae (hereafter, Consolatio), ensured that, although unfortunate in politics, Boethius would nevertheless maintain a larger-than-life reputation as a vessel of classical wisdom. During the course of the Middle Ages, Boethius became symbolic for the artes liberales and medieval thinkers assimilated his works as integral components of what they assumed to be a fully mature conceptualization of universal knowledge. His position, seen by medieval scholars as a spark of precocious enlightenment in a constellation of late-antique thinkers, endured well into the 16th century. The medieval reception of Boethius' works and ideas over the course of the ten centuries following his death is the subject of the volume presently under review.

As editors, Kaylor and Phillips must be commended for assembling an unusually comprehensive and coherent volume of collected essays. The volume's fourteen chapters variously treat the medieval engagement with six intellectual disciplines represented in Boethius' works (astronomy, mathematics, music, philosophy, poetry, theology), each of which, regardless of their unity in the mind of Boethius and in the minds of medieval thinkers, have tended to become the property of distinctive modern disciplinary approaches. In addition to the careful apportionment of topics, the volume also covers the regional traditions that contributed to the distinctively various reception of Boethius' works. The utility of this volume to advanced students and scholars involved in the study of readership communities and reception, medieval education and intellectual culture, the history of science, medieval literature and the transmission of Latin to vernacular literatures cannot be overestimated. Any one of the inclusive chapters could easily serve as a gateway to a proper monographic study concerned with some aspect of Boethius' legacy and the volume is certain to serve as an indispensable reference.

As the volume amply illustrates, Boethius became one of the most important figures representing the transmission of "ancient wisdom" in the history of western medieval thought. The volume's strategic coverage of this tradition clearly necessitated a tight economy with respect to the treatment of individual topics. Many of the chapters are narrowly focused and rarely venture beyond the interest that a particular modern discipline has in a given topic. The balance of coverage (disciplinary and regional) partly compensates for this deficiency, but because individual articles are so closely bound to the topics treated in Boethius' own writing, the reader is less frequently treated to an understanding of how the wider cultural setting of the Middle Ages sustained the reputation of Boethius for so long. This is both understandable, given the limitations inherent in publishing an edited collection, but also worthy of comment. Each chapter (discussed in greater detail below) touches upon the idea of Boethius' authority in a particular medieval intellectual setting, but because of the narrow scope of each chapter (for example, Boethius' contribution to musical theory), the authority of Boethius is more often assumed, rather than explained. Because many chapters emphasize how selective and conditional medieval commentators were in using Boethius, the basis of Boethius' cultural authority seems to deserve more direct treatment. A common theme in many chapters is that using Boethius as an authority for an intellectual tradition required much mediation on the part of medieval writers. This, of course, prompts questions concerning the basis of his authority. Why is it that his works were so pervasively consulted when only conditionally agreed with or, at times, only partially understood? For example, most medieval translators, commentators and exegetes recognized something in Boethius' works that was not completely Christian by contemporary standards; his thinking had in most cases to be adapted and conditioned for a contemporary audience. Nonetheless, none rejected Boethius out of hand (until Lorenzo Valla, a noted and late exception), implying that Boethius had a kind of a priori authority, so much so that it mattered to bring Boethius into agreement with contemporary thinking. The reasons why Boethius was such a towering cultural figure that new versions of his work had to be carefully crafted in different medieval cultural contexts has not received direct and sustained attention in this volume. What still seems lacking is a comprehensive understanding of how Boethius became "BOETHIUS." [1] For example, the volume does not offer a treatment of Boethius in the context of pious tradition, despite evidence for the emergence of a martyr's cult associated with Boethius in Italy as early as the 6th century. [2] An examination of Boethius outside of fields strictly delimited by the received texts might have provided readers with foundation for understanding the basis of Boethius' authority in a broader, cultural setting than offered by individual chapters. This should not detract from the overall utility of the volume, but it is a noteworthy lacuna for Boethian studies.

The volume is divided into fourteen chapters, not including the preface (ix-xiv) and a bibliographical appendix of editions, translations and secondary works (551-589). In the first chapter (1-46), Noel Harold Kaylor sketches an overview of Boethius' involvement in the political, religious, and intellectual contexts of his lifetime. Regrettably, this chapter is of limited utility. Although its chief stated purpose is to assemble a picture of the "interpretations by historians and other researchers of the surviving evidence that relates specifically to the times, life and work of Boethius" (1), Kaylor's reconstruction of the major events and temperament of the period is almost wholly dependent upon what must now be acknowledged as less reliably informed sources: Edward Gibbon (1770s), Thomas Hodgkin (1880s), Hugh Stewart (1891), Henry Chadwick (1981). [3] A host of recent and generally better informed scholarship on the period has been neglected. [4] Also unfortunate is the absence of direct recourse to the many rich primary sources from the period (with the noted exception of Boethius' own writing). In place of voices contemporary with Boethius, Kaylor often relies upon paraphrases of Hodgkin, who lacked, by his own admission, a full understanding of important 6th-century sources. [5] The result is a characterization of the period that is decidedly less reliable than that which current scholarship has meticulously assembled with much valuable nuance.

The second chapter by Stephen McCluskey (47-73) surveys Boethius' contribution to medieval thought on astrology and cosmology from the 9th to the 13th century. The essay introduces the sources that had informed Boethius' knowledge of astronomy and then shifts to the more central theme of how Boethius transmitted the late-antique conception of the cosmos as a manifestation of divine harmony, the understanding of which served as a source of moral instruction (50-63). The access that Boethius provided to this topic was clearly one source of his appeal in the Middle Ages, drawing the attention of Remigius of Auxerre, Bovo of Corvey, the Anonymous of Einsiedeln, Adalbold of Utrecht and William of Conches (64-72). Of particular interest is the manner in which medieval thinkers grappled with and attempted to explain Boethius' concept of a world soul in a manner that was theologically correct and which preserved the antique notion of cosmological harmony. The search for agreement between Boethius and contemporary theological assumptions generated a rich diversity of medieval approaches to understanding Boethius and led to the engagement of medieval thinkers with other late-antique sources as comparanda (72-73).

One of the best contributions to the volume is the third chapter, by Rosalind Love, on the Latin commentaries of the Consolatio (75-133). Love explores the medieval traditions for glossing the manuscripts of the Consolatio with commentary from the 9th to the 12th century. The chapter provides an model for approaching the abundant variety with which Boethius was used and interpreted. As Love illustrates, not all commentaries were composed with singular purpose at a given moment; instead, they often represent the accumulation of glosses by different authors over time, sometimes centuries. The chapter's reconstruction of the historiography of commentaries traceable to Remigius of Auxerre and the Anonymous of St. Gall is meticulous and lucid. The final contribution is a tentative typology of comments rendered in the glossing of manuscripts, demonstrating above all the encyclopedic range of interests for which medieval readers mined the Consolatio: grammar, Christian theology, etymologies, explanations of classical history and mythology, interest in science and philosophy (125-131). As Love notes, medieval methods of exegesis are visible in many of the glosses, as is the medieval fascination with the classical attribution of classical and late-antique sources of knowledge.

The fourth chapter by Jean-Yves Guillaumin (135-161) examines the medieval tradition for Boethius' De institutione arithmetica. Guillaumin characterizes the Arithmetica as the "first systematic and well-developed treatise on the mathematical subject in the Roman world", although he acknowledges earlier influences (i.e., Nicomachus) on Boethius' work. The chapter discusses how Boethius' mathematical studies contributed to what later became the medieval tradition of the quadrivium and the importance of mathematics as the foundation of philosophical study through access to knowledge of certain truths (136-142). [6] The chapter provides a summary of how Boethius structured the treatise and concludes with speculation on the western reception of Boethius' mathematical knowledge through Cassiodorus and Isidore of Seville (155-162).

The following two chapters treat Boethius' contribution to medieval education and philosophy. Siobhan Nash-Marshall locates in Boethius' De Trinitate and Contra Eutychen a contribution to medieval theology and metaphysics that elevates Boethius above the common scholarly assumption that Boethius was simply a compiler of earlier philosophical works (163-191). The chapter outlines Boethius' contribution to the precepts of logic, to definitions of philosophical vocabulary in Latin and to the methodology of argumentation. Nash-Marshall suggests that Boethius' works conveyed to the Middle Ages frameworks for articulating the purpose of Latin philosophy and for scholastic inquiry: namely, the four tenets of medieval scholasticism--the principle of reasoned argument (ratio), the belief that authorities were to be trusted and invoked in the defense of truths (auctoritas), that the truths of faith and reason were mutually enriching (concordia), that all human knowledge ultimately has the same object (unitas) (172-182). The chapter concludes with case studies that demonstrate how Boethius' philosophical understanding of nihil and esse impacted medieval theological debates. John Patrick Casey's chapter on logic continues the examination of Boethius' influence on philosophical thought in the Middle Ages (193-219). Casey finds that Boethius' contribution was largely in the transmission of works from Aristotle and Stoic philosophers. In contrast to the originality that Nash-Marshall found in Boethius' metaphysical thought, Casey contends that Boethius' knowledge of logic was derivative. Nonetheless, by interpreting and attempting to understand Boethius, medieval thinkers found novel means for making advances in medieval logic. The chapter provides an overview of Aristotelian and Stoic precepts of logic, considers the avenues by which Boethius would have come into contact with these sources and then traces evidence for the presence of Boethius' works of logic from the 8th to the 12th century. The formal explication of Boethius' philosophy in commentaries formed the basis of medieval scholastic study and much original medieval thought, as is evident in the works of Anselm and Abelard.

The next five chapters treat the influence of vernacular versions of the Consolatio in regional contexts. Each chapter provides often fascinating insights into the process by which translation generated new voices and new uses for Boethius in the Middle Ages. In each vernacular setting, translations had the potential to produce versions of the Consolatio that offered marked departures from Boethius' original. For example, Paul Szarmach, in his examination of the translation of the Consolatio in 9th and 10th century England (221-254) notes that Anglo-Saxon versions of the work tended to render allusions to classical mythology and God more palatable to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities and to sanitize Boethius' more overtly Neoplatonic conceptions of the divine. The scholar Ælfric even used biblical sources to interpret Boethius' discussion of predestination (240-243). Similarly, Christine Hehle's study of Boethius' influence in German literature (255-318) surveys the variety with which Boethius appeared in an incredible range of vernacular writing from the 9th to the 15th century: numerous glosses on the Consolatio that reveal interest in Boethius as a compendious source of encyclopedic knowledge, medieval courtly romances that incorporated features of the Consolatio such as the concept of Fortune's wheel, and the abrupt proliferation of translations of the complete Consolatio into Old High German beginning in the 15th century. In the context of medieval France, Glynnis Cropp (319-355) begins with a description of how the evocative historical circumstances of Boethius' life resonated with French writers and then proceeds to survey the development of a tradition for the Consolatio in French vernacular, which manifested in a lively array of courtly romance literature and translations in prose and verse. Of particular interest, the chapter addresses the divergent influences that the Consolatio had, for example, in popular homiletic literature (Christine de Pizan) and political philosophy (Eustache Deschamps) (347-354). Dario Brancato offers a profile of the varied reception and interpretations of the Consolatio in Italy from the 14th to the 16th century (357-411). This is clearly one of the better contributions in terms of situating the transmission of Boethius within a panoptic view of cultural and intellectual history. The chapter offers a series of case studies for intellectual circles responsible for the dissemination of vernacular translations which illustrate the varied attitudes toward Boethius as an intellectual authority (focusing primarily on contributions of Nicholas Trevet, Lorenzo Valla, Marsilio Ficino, Lorenzo de'Medici), as a source of religious instruction (Anselmo Tanzo) and in courtly culture (Cosimo de'Medici). Returning to England, Ian Johnson offers a final view of the Consolatio in a regional context by examining its influence in Middle English literature (413-446). Prose translations by Chaucer and John Walton receive attention, and the detailed internal analysis of Walton's translation reveals how Middle English versions increasingly used Latin commentaries to Christianize aspects of Boethius' original text.

The next two chapters return to Boethius' association with the medieval quadrivium. Mark Rimple's contribution (447-478) surveys Boethius' influence on the medieval understanding of harmony, which appeared in medieval treatments of philosophy, poetry and music. Having its basis in the same mathematics that united the four disciplines of the quadrivium, Boethius' particular configuration of harmony became less pervasive from the 12th century when the "new" scholasticism arising from the rediscovery of Aristotle's scientific works began to erode music's place in the quadrivium. Nonetheless, Rimple finds survivals of interest in Boethius' definition for harmony in the thematic conceits of poets, paintings of Giotto and the commentaries of musical theorists as late as the modern era. The quadrivium receives more direct attention in Ann Moyer's article (479-517). Again, one of the better articles by virtue of the attention given to mapping the changes in a wider intellectual culture that impacted the medieval fascination with Boethius, Moyer argues that 16th-century education began to dismiss the efficacy of the quadrivium as a vehicle for understanding practical knowledge, theoretical knowledge, moral knowledge and divine knowledge as a coherent system. The corollary of this was the erosion of an important source of Boethius' cultural authority. The chapter surveys the sources used by Boethius in his works on the disciplines of the quadrivium, ideas about the disciplines from Boethius that were present in the Carolingian educational curricula and finally the gradual decline of the quadrivium as a pedagogical model beginning in the 12th century. Moyer finds that it was the commercial demand for a practical education that introduced competing pedagogical models. Although humanist interest in natural science briefly reinvigorated the idea of the quadrivium in the 16th century, in time interest in applied sciences challenged the notion of universality once claimed by the quadrivium.

The final chapter by Fabio Troncarelli (519-549) offers something of a meditation on the meaning of the Consolatio. Troncarelli emphasizes Boethius' precocity in contrast to the political and intellectual culture of Ostrogothic Italy, a portrayal that seems rather enmeshed with a particularly barbarized depiction of Gothic government (esp. 519-520). Troncarelli writes with patent admiration for Boethius, reading in the Consolatio a highly personal statement of an individual's "rediscovery" of the benefits of a contemplative life framed by Christian Platonism. Important insights appear throughout Troncarelli's essay: for example, the similarity between Boethius' dialogue with Philosophy in the Consolatio and Augustine's dialogue with his own reason in the Soliloquia. Troncarelli also provides an excellent discussion of the development of the Neoplatonic conceptions that formed the foundation of Boethius' understanding of the divine. A compelling thought, Troncarelli explains the Consolatio as a Christian text that has transcended the particulars of Christian doctrine to a Christianity that was universal in the metaphysical sense expressed in Neoplatonic thought (522-528). Other portions of the essay treat the memory of Boethius and the post-mortem transmission of the Consolatio in Ostrogothic Italy. This discussion considers a number of contemporary primary sources (Cassiodorus, Maximian, Ennodius, Dionysius Exiguus), although some aspects of the treatment may seem exaggerated: for example, Cassiodorus' presumed suppression of documents pertaining to the confiscation of Boethius' property and Troncarelli's habit of referring to the quite meager Ordo generis as Cassiodorus' Vita Boethii, despite the text's obvious dissimilarity to late-antique vitae and the equal treatment given in the text to Cassiodorus and Symmachus. As with the first chapter of the volume, this essay also seems frustratingly disengaged with recent scholarship, even where this scholarship would support Troncarelli's claims. For example, Troncarelli's important suggestion that Cassiodorus was responsible for disseminating an edition of the Consolatio in Constantinople agrees with other recent studies that emphasize the eastern imperial influence on Cassiodorus. [7] Moving to Boethius' reception in the Middle Ages, Troncarelli explores the exciting potential for codicological analysis of the Consolatio to reveal how medieval thinkers understood the auctoritas of Boethius (537-544). On the whole, the codicological context of Boethius' works, for which Troncarelli offers a glimpse, seems to be the most pressing and promising need in Boethian studies. Troncarelli concludes that Boethius in the Middle Ages was both controversial and a cipher to be decoded for his truths (544-549). The basis of his authority was never contested, but his meaning, it seems, was continually re-negotiated.

A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages is an excellent contribution to medieval studies, reflecting as it does the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to tessellated and layered topics such as "BOETHIUS". Where the volume may fall short of engaging with recent literature from the field of history, this should be understood in terms of the traditional interest that many other modern disciplines (literature, philosophy, history of science) have had in specific works of Boethius. The volume is to be appreciated both in terms of how it advances the interests of those individual disciplines with remarkable erudition, but also in terms of how the volume's representation of Boethian studies brings into higher relief the questions that have not yet been addressed.



[1] A classic example of this kind of transformation in reception is Robert Kaster, "Becoming 'CICERO'," in P. Knox and C. Foss (eds.), Style and Tradition: Studies in Honor of Wendell Clausen (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1998), 250-265.

[2] Phoebe Robinson, "Dead Boethius: Sixth-Century Accounts of a Future Martyr," Viator 35 (2005): 1-19, offers a starting point for understanding Boethius in the context of a martyrial tradition.

[3] A noted exception is Kaylor's consultation of James O'Donnell's thoughtful reappraisal of 6th-century Italy, The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (New York: Ecco, 2008).

[4] Absent are references to obvious contributions to the study of Ostrogothic Italy: Patrick Amory, Samuel Barnish, Deborah Deliyannis, Andrea Giardina, Andrew Gillett, Peter Heather, Federico Marazzi, Arnaldo Momigliano, John Moorhead, Lellia Ruggini, Kristina Sessa, Danuta Shanzer.

[5] Note Thomas Hodgkin's patent frustration at attempting to understand Cassiodorus' Variae, from his preface to The Letters of Cassiodorus: Being a Condensed Translation of the Variae Epistolae (London: H. Frowde, 1886).

[6] It is unfortunate that this discussion of the trivium and quadrivium did not benefit from the insights of Ilsetraut Hadot or Danuta Shanzer.

[7] For example, Troncarelli's discussion of Maximian fails to note important work by Barnish and Shanzer on the subject; discussion of Cassiodorus' Institutiones would have profited from the work of Mark Vessey, Cassiodorus: Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning: On the Soul (Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 2003); on Cassiodorus in Constantinople, Bjornlie, "What Have Elephants to do with Sixth-Century Politics?: A Reappraisal of the "Official" Governmental Dossier of Cassiodorus," Journal of Late Antiquity (2009): 143-171 and now Michael Bjornlie, Politics and Tradition between Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople: A Study of Cassiodorus and the Variae (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).