contributor.author: Linde M. Brocato

title.none: Tolan, Petrus Alfonsi and His Medieval Readers

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.017 95.05.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Linde M. Brocato, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Tolan, John. Petrus Alfonsi and His Medieval Readers. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1993. Pp. xv + 288; includes index and bibliography. ISBN: ISBN 0-8130-1238-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.17

Tolan, John. Petrus Alfonsi and His Medieval Readers. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1993. Pp. xv + 288; includes index and bibliography. ISBN: ISBN 0-8130-1238-4.

Reviewed by:

Linde M. Brocato
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

John Tolan's recent study of the works of Petrus Alfonsi has two main parts, the first of which "describes the breadth and nature of Alfonsi's intellectual activities;" the second "analyzes the impact of his two main works on subsequent European thought" (xiv). Tolan's work is a relatively extensive description and analysis of Petrus Alfonsi's works, based on a significant number of manuscripts from all over Europe, and ranging from the 12th through the 16th centuries.

The first part of Tolan's study, "Petrus Alfonsi: Intellectual Emissary Between Two Worlds," is the larger portion of the work. In it, Tolan begins (chapter 1) with the situation of Andalusian Jews in Al-Andalus, and then presents Petrus Alfonsi's biographical information. After a general overview of the social status and general education of elite Jews among the Arabs of Al-Andalus, and the social and cultural cross currents within Andalusian culture, Tolan turns to the scanty information and evidence on Alfonsi's life, all of which is taken from Alfonsi's own writings: his conversion in 1106 in Huesca, his name before baptism (Moses), his journeys to England and to France in the early 12th century. The following three chapters are largely close readings of Petrus Alfonsi's principal texts: the Dialogi contra Iudaeos, "the single most important anti-Jewish text of the Latin Middle Ages" (11), his scientific treatises, and the Disciplina clericalis. Through three chapters, Tolan focuses on, first, Alfonsi's attacks on Judaism and on Islam, then his spread of astronomical and astrological doctrine to Latin Europe, and, finally, Alfonsi's contribution to the Wisdom tradition in Latin culture. In his reading of the Dialogi contra iudaeos(chapter 2), Tolan asserts that one of Alfonsi's primary contributions to anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic polemic was his first-hand knowledge of the Talmud and of Islam. However, one of the fundamental elements of that text most often eliminated in later uses was its emphasis on reasoned dialogue between the interlocutors, Petrus (himself as converso) and Moses (himself as preconversion Jew). In reading Alfonsi's contributions to the 12th century renaissance (chapter 3), Tolan focusses on the scientific information from the digressions of the Dialogi, Alfonsi's translation and adaptation of al-Kw[a]rizm's Z j al-Sindhind, the De dracone of Walcher based on Alfonsi's teachings, and the Epistola ad peripateticos. This chapter basically lists the contributions of Alfonsi to the growing interest in science in 12th century Latin intellectual endeavor, and discusses the influence of these texts largely in terms of who quoted them directly. As is his habit, after sections detailing the contents and characteristics of the texts under consideration, Tolan includes a final paragraph to the chapter, in which there are suggestive ideas and conclusions, which nonetheless seem somehow unintegrated to the work in the rest of the chapter, a chapter which has led Tolan, prior to the last paragraph, to evaluate Alfonsi's contribution to medieval science as "paltry" and his general competence as minimal (71). Yet, it is not Alfonsi's work in the transmission of science per se, which according to Tolan Alfonsi apparently "does not fully understand" (71), that is important; rather, it is his "imaginative and perceptive grasp of the implications of these scientific ideas" as shown by his integration of them into the Dialogi that is "the creative, original element of Alfonsi's achievement" (71).

In Tolan's estimation, it is the Disciplina clericalis that is "a resounding and lasting success" (72) among PA's works, "the only work of its genre in 12th-century Latin literature" (72). Although Tolan repeatedly uses Aesop's fables as a basis of comparison for the structure and style of Alfonsi's (76, 85, 132, 133), and even points out that eventually some of Alfonsi's tales are integrated into a collection of Aesopian texts (138), he never discusses the relationships between the two traditions, nor, indeed, does he explicitly explore the relationship between proverb, aphorism, fable, and exemplum, except for a brief defense of his own choice of fable' in preference to exemplum' as used by 13th century preachers. Again, Tolan proceeds largely by close reading for the message of a sampling of Alfonsi's fables, showing that "his purpose is to inspire the student to wisdom and decorum" (82), and marvelling at their "simplicity and realism" as well as their "rationalism" (91).

The second section of Tolan's book consists of two chapters detailing the manuscripts of the Dialogi (chapter 5) and the Disciplina (chapter 6), inferring from dates, provenance, and codicological data the spread of the manuscripts, the kinds of readers (Benedictines, Cistercians, Augstinians, etc.) of the texts, their popularity (attested to by the numbers of texts (79 Mss of the Dialogi in comparison with 5 manuscripts of Joachim de Fiore's Adversus Iudaeos for example; 76 for the Disciplina), and their success. On the basis of the kinds of texts copied or bound with the Dialogi, Tolan asserts that it was read in several ways: as science, as a source of information on Islam and on Judaism, as an anti-Jewish polemic, as a raw material in need of reworking for other purposes (e.g. Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum historiale, among other texts, that reduce the text from dialogue to monologue), largely the suppression of heresy. The final chapter on the Mss of the Disciplina lacks the extended discussion of the Latin Mss of the text, their provenance and their contents; rather, it contents itself with a far more cursory overview of the textual travelling companions of the Disciplina, widely disparate works ranging from Seneca and Aesop to the Victorines to Innocent III's De miseria humane conditionis.

Tolan begins his substantive discussion of Alfonsi's text with the French prose and verse translations of the 13th and 14th centuries. Although Tolan segues into his discussion of these translations via the "exoticism" that seemed to appeal to some readers, he describes the naturalization of the fables into texts "more familiar" to translator and readers alike, "remov[ing] Arab and Muslim elements" (135), translating monetary units (137), and so forth.

From this discussion of the Disciplina as didactic literature, both in the Latin and French texts, Tolan moves to its use in other Mss. as a source of exempla, those versatile potential narratives (apropos of Jacques de Vitry, quoted on p. 142) that are to bear the fruit of conviction via their improvised and vernacular use in sermons of the mendicant preachers. Tolan gives examples of the adaptations of Alfonsi's didactic fables to the uses of Catholic devotion via Jacques de Vitry, Etienne de Bourbon, Humbert of Romans, and anonymous compilers of exempla, who mine the text of the Disciplina, and the effects of this paradigm in expanding or reducing the text of the Disciplinaitself. Finally, Tolan rehearses the influence of the Disciplinain the mere telling of tales in the 15th century and later, including, of course, Boccaccio, Moli appendices, the first of which presents an edition and translation of Petrus Alfonsi's Epistola ad peripateticos, with some few emendations by Tolan, who cites the manuscript in brackets when he emends. The remaining three treat manuscripts of Alfonsi's works. Appendix 2 deals with Mss of the contra Iudaeos, and, although it seems to be based largely on Mieth's edition, does not include "explicit references" to his listing of Mss, or to Santiago Otero's study of the Dialogi. The third, on the Disciplina clericalis, must be considered a supplement to the critical edition of Hilka and S[o]derhjelm, since Tolan describes only Mss not described in their critical edition. The final appendix evaluates the claims of several other works to Petrus Alfonsi's authorship, including the De humano proficuo and the De elementis as possibly by Petrus Alfonsi, and others as less likely from his hand.

Tolan's final chapter "Conclusion: Text and Authority," is roughly 3 pages, and, like his concluding sections in general, seems to this reader to be somewhat hasty and superficial. Indeed, it seems not integrated to the matter and argument of the preceeding chapters, not least because it claims to have "important implications for the methodology of medieval intellectual history" (159), when heretofore, there have been no methodological discussions nor any theoretical ones, and, indeed, such terms as "originality," "interest," and "success," accompanied by a rather individualistic notion of the role of the author, adaptor, or scribe (e.g. adaptation or reworking of a text "according to his own interest"), seem to govern Tolan's notion of what writing and reading in the Middle Ages were about. The implications are apparently that estimation of the importance of a medieval author should not be based on the fame' of said author, or the presence of a modern edition, but should follow the model laid out in Tolan's study, which apparently is paradigmatic for determining how many "people in the Middle Ages read it or even knew about" a text, that is, how "successful" the text in question was (159). Although a widened focus on the broad horizon of medieval authors is to be lauded, along with the inclusion of a wider array of textual and codicological evidence, it is nonetheless unclear why Tolan's agenda suddenly becomes methodological, or whether he merely includes this material as an afterthought. If there is a hidden polemic between more and less traditional ways of working the relations between Medieval texts, cultures, and ideas, Tolan's study seems to fall more on the conservative side--which is not a problem; what is a problem, however, is that the polemic remains hidden, to leap out at the reader in the final paragraphs of the book, rather than being made an organizing principle of the text from the beginning. In addition, the bulk of the conclusion examines the use of reason for the imposition of orthodoxy by a dominant ideology, yet Tolan seems to have no intellectual engagement with recent theoretical thinking on such relations of power in intellectual endeavor. In short, one is left with the impression that Tolan has not really thought through the issues, especially since the work remains at the level of description throughout.

As a Hispanist, I must also lament the erasure of Spain from this study beginning with Tolan's choice of name for his author, especially since Tolan does not specifically limit his focus to northern Europe (primarily England, France, and Germany), only reaching into vernacular texts with the readings of medieval French translations of the Disciplina in the last chapter. Tolan's discussion of Iberian culture in the first chapter is indeed cursory, and could have benefited from much recent work by both Maria Rosa Menocal and Luce Lopez Baralt, among other Hispanists working in medieval Hispano-Arabic culture. Tolan's discussion of the development of medieval science via contact with Arabic and Jewish thought and texts in as well as through Spain is extremely superficial, and calls on very little scholarship of any depth and particularity beyond the most basic bibliography on Petrus Alfonsi. In addition, Petrus Alfonsi's Disciplina formed a part of the tradition of Eastern Wisdom literature in Spain, especially strong in the 13th and 14th centuries, and ceding to fables of more Latin provenance in the 15th century. In this, Tolan is fairly representative and unexceptional as well, following disciplinary habits in ignoring both texts and scholarship in Spanish unless completely unavoidable.

Equally serious is the incomplete nature of Tolan's survey of Mss, especially if his work is to be a model for future study of medieval intellectual history; it is clear that he has not adequately searched library catalogues.1 In addition, Tolan refers to Mss. of the Dialogi from the 16th century, without reference to what such Mss. might signify differently in the age of print, and without reference to three early modern imprints of the same work (all of northern European provenance: Coloniae 1536 plus 2 others from 1618 and 1677).2 While no one author can do everything, this is an important issue, especially give the fact that the Disciplina doesn't seem to be printed in its original' form, but rather is incorporated into the Aesopian tradition.3

A further criticism, that I fear me is pure pedantry, is Tolan's excessive dependence on secondary works for citations of primary texts or on non-standard translations of primary texts, often without any indication that he has sought out the primary texts in question. For example, on page 235-6 at n. 1, he cites Fernan Perez de Guzman from Mieth's edition of the Dialogi, with no indication of original source at all, oddly enough putting the graphic accent on the wrong syllable of Perez de Guzman's name in both the text and the note; on page 258 at n. 95 he cites the Paradiso from The Portable Dante; throughout, we are warned in the "Apparatus," he uses the KJV of the Bible, which I find somewhat odd for working with a 12th century author. The latter could in part be a result of the intricacies of the relationship of press and scholar, and for that reason, I simply point it out; this too could perhaps account for what feels like the text's confusion of audience, since it seems pitched neither for a scholarly audience, nor entirely for a general one.

Tolan has produced a useful descriptive work for an overview of the contents, structure, and manuscript traditions of the principal works of Petrus Alfonsi, that supplements the available critical editions, and provides some insight into the relationship between Alfonsi's texts and those influenced by his work. Nonetheless, the methodological aspirations of the study seem to me to be unsupported by the results of his work, and his methodological oversights further undercut its trustworthiness on some counts. I hope that further work on Petrus Alfonsi will take up the challenge of the very interesting possibilities to which Petrus Alfonsi and His Medieval Readers points (like the dialogic self-doubling in the Dialogi or the moral instability of the fable form in the Disciplina's evolution), and explore both the textual and factual avenues and implications that beckon from his pages.

1 Per communication of A. A. Graham, a cursory search of published catalogues for German libraries yields at least 4 more Mss. Email to Paul Remley, 31 January 1995. These are: [1] Wolfenbuettel, HAB, codex 404.8.2 (23) Novi (fragments of DC); Hans Butzmann, Die ma. Hss. der Gruppen Extravagantes, Novi und Novissimi (Frankfurt-am-Main: Klostermann, 1972); [2] Wurzburg, Uni.-Bibl. Codes M.ch.f.2 (DC); Hans Thurn, Die Papierhss. der ehemaligen Dombibliothek(Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz, 1981); [3] Munich, BSB, Cgm 275 (DC); Karin Schneider, Die dt. Hss. der BSB Muenchen: Cgm 201-350 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1970); [4] Augsburg, UB, Codex III.1.fol.29 (Exempla attributed to PA); Karin Schneider, Dt. ma. Hss. der UB Augsburg (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1988). In addition, Prof. Graham notes that, in calling Abertanus of Brescia "Albert of Brescia" Tolan seems to be unaware of current scholarship.
2 British Library Catalogue vol. 3, col. 564, Petri Alfonsi, ex Iudaeo Christiani dialogi lectu dignissimi, in quibus impiae Iudaeorum opiniones . . . argumentis confutantur . . . Accessis libellus . . . Rabbi Samuelis ueri Messiae parastasim continens [translated from the Arabic by A. Boni Hominis]. Coloniae: Apud I. Gynmicum, 1536. Dialogus contra Judaeos appears also in editions of M. de La Bigne's Magna Biblioteca Veterum Patrum, et Antiquorum Scriptorum Ecclesiastorum, Coloniae Agrippinae, 1618 (vol. 12, pt. 1); Lugduni: Gennuae, 1677 (vol. 21). (Cf. British Library Catalogue vol. 128, col. 93.
3 I refer the reader to 197-8 in The Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi, trans. [into German] and ed. Eberhard Hermes, trans. into English by P. R. Quarrie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977). Hermes' translation appeared as Die Kunst, vernünftig zu Leben (Disciplina Clericalis) (Zürich: Artemis Verlags-AG, 1970). Here, Hermes discusses the early editions of the Discipina, including the only "complete edition," "the Textus Summularum which was printed in Alost in Flanders in 1478 (Hain-Copiner 2982)" (197).