Daniel Hobbins

title.none: Peter Comestor, Scolastica Historia (Daniel Hobbins)

identifier.other: baj9928.0604.005 06.04.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel Hobbins, University of Texas Austin,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Peter Comestor. Agneta Sylwan, ed. Scolastica Historia: Liber Genesis. Series: Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 191. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005. Pp. lxxxix, 226. $175 2-503-04911-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.04.05

Peter Comestor. Agneta Sylwan, ed. Scolastica Historia: Liber Genesis. Series: Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 191. Turnhout: Brepols, 2005. Pp. lxxxix, 226. $175 2-503-04911-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Daniel Hobbins
University of Texas Austin

Around 1170 Peter Comestor, chancellor of the cathedral school at Notre Dame in Paris, completed his retelling of biblical history from the Creation of the world to the Ascension of Christ. The work soon became a standard textbook in the schools--hence the name it soon acquired, the Scolastica Historia, later reversed in most manuscripts to Historia Scolastica. Peter's great contribution was to treat the historical sense in continuous fashion as a coherent narrative, unified by certain themes, and set against the backdrop of secular history. His work was pedagogical. He says in the prologue that he chose to treat the historical sense alone because of the pleadings of colleagues who expressed frustration at having to read the Biblical narrative out of chronological order and scattered in glosses. The work soon became standard and was never fully dislodged from the university curriculum, though Nicolas of Lyra's Postil on Scripture (which survives in about fifteen hundred manuscripts) later became the reference work of choice for understanding the literal sense.

Until now, readers of the Scolastica Historia have consulted the text of the Patrologia Latina (PL 198.1053-1644). For that edition, Migne reprinted a 1699 edition, the last in a long series of editions depending more or less on an incunabulum published at Strasbourg in 1475. Agneta Sylwan's edition of the Book of Genesis thus marks the first new edition of any part of the Scolastica Historia since the seventeenth century, and the very first edition based on a rigorous analysis of the manuscripts. As such, it represents a major advance in scholarship. In her preparation for this edition, Sylwan identified around eight hundred manuscripts from the late twelfth to the early sixteenth centuries. For the edition itself she examined twenty-four manuscripts of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. On the strength of a test collation, she chose eight of these manuscripts for her text. Her stated goal in this edition (lxxxv) is to reconstruct the earliest, original version of the text, which she labels X, a hypothetical ancestor to her manuscript P (Paris, BnF lat. 16943, dated 1183), produced around 1170 before the work had become a part of the scholarly curriculum. The other seven manuscripts derive from a new edition, intended for use in instruction, and carried out either by Comestor himself or by others with his approval. Sylwan identifies this edition as Y and argues plausibly that it was circulated at the Third Lateran Council in 1179; it was soon widely available. The primitive text (X) thus never reached a general readership while the revised text (Y) became the standard scholarly edition.

Here then is the puzzling thing about this edition: Sylwan seems not to recognize that many or most users of an edition of the Scolastica Historia will want to know how the text was read and used at least as much as how Peter Comestor might originally have composed it. Manifestly, this is a text whose importance depends more on its influence on later writers and on its history as a textbook in the universities than on the great originality and imagination of its author. Just one example of the problems that arise from privileging one manuscript that departs from the rest of the tradition appears in the rubrics to the chapters. In the Book of Genesis alone, P differs from all other manuscripts in 29 out of 112 rubrics, and it is P's rubrics that appear in the text of her edition (lxxv). Sylwan refers to an important adaptation of Y that served as the model for the version of the text that was read in the universities and was translated into Dutch, French, and German (xxxviii-xxxix). She eliminates this family because it has little importance for reconstructing the original text. But many readers will want to know the readings of exactly this version, whose variants Sylwan does not include in her apparatus. Thus one cannot reconstruct from this edition the vulgate text, the Historia Scholastica that most university students read and studied. For that text, the reader will still need to consult the edition of the Patrologia Latina. Indeed the reversed title of this edition--not Historia Scolastica but Scolastica Historia--is emblematic of its basic problem. Most manuscripts bear the former title, the title by which most people in the Middle Ages and all medievalists today identify the text. Are we now to reverse the title because Peter Comestor labeled the work Scolastica Historia at the time of the new edition of 1179? Who matters more, author or readers? Of course this reversal imports no change the meaning, but other changes to the text had more lasting effects.

Although Sylwan prefers the readings of P, she does not accept them in all cases, including in some instances when the reading of P is plausible enough and not obviously mistaken. At least in these few cases, the reader can reconstruct P from the apparatus. A more serious issue concerns her decision to occasionally correct presumed mistakes in the text without any support from readings in the manuscripts. For example, in the narrative of Jacob and Esau, all the manuscripts including P state the following: "Porro cum adoleuissent filii Ysaac, factus est Esau venator et Iacob agricola et pastor in tabernaculis habitabat"--that is, Esau became a hunter and Jacob became a farmer and shepherd. The Vulgate however states that Esau became a hunter and farmer, and that Jacob was a simple man who dwelt in tents. ("Quibus adultis factus est Esau uir gnarus uenandi et homo agricola, Iacob autem uir simplex habitabat in tabernaculis.") Sylwan therefore changes the text to agree with the Vulgate: "Esau uenator et agricola, et Iacob pastor..." (lxv-lxvi, 122). It is possible that Peter originally intended to write this, and that in fact he did so and that scribal error corrupted his meaning. (I assume for the moment that since he was once a secretary of St. Bernard, Peter himself wrote the text down rather than dictated it; Sylwan does not address this question.) But it is also quite possible that Peter wrote the text as it appears in the manuscripts. Perhaps Peter was simply wrong and made a mistake, or maybe he thought one thing and wrote another, or maybe he was reading a corrupt text of the Vulgate.

These editorial decisions diminish what is otherwise an important work of scholarship on a text that for all its influence is still little studied and read today. Sylwan's edition allows for a deeper appreciation of Comestor's accomplishment. We certainly have a much better idea of how he originally composed his text. Another obvious advance of this edition is the identification of Peter's sources, which can be surveyed in the "Index fontium." The most abundant sources are twelfth-century (xxvi-xxvii). As Beryl Smalley first recognized, Peter relied heavily on Andrew of St. Victor. Sylwan's edition demonstrates the extent of that reliance, as well as his heavy use of the Interlinear and Ordinary Glosses, Josephus (cited eighty times in Genesis but used even more often), the Origines of Isidore, and Hugh of St. Victor. Other major sources include Augustine (various works), Peter Lombard's Sentences, and Remigius of Auxerre on Genesis. For the topography of the Holy Land, Peter used the Liber locorum sanctorum terrae Jerusalem of Fretellus, a chancellor of Galilee and archdeacon of Nazareth who composed the work in 1138 and revised it around 1150. Peter's use of this work demonstrates his desire to use the latest scholarship. When Peter quoted the Bible, Sylwan finds, he frequently combined readings from the Vulgate and the Vetus Latina to produce a "very personal version" of the text of Scripture (xxix). For example, he meshes the Vulgate "coniugibus" and the VL "uxores" into "uxoribus," and "fugeret" and "recessisset" into "fugisset."

Sylwan's investigations into the sources yield some important discoveries that will interest experts. One is that Peter used a manuscript of the Antiquitates Iudaicae of Josephus that included only books I-XII (xxii). From this fact, Sylwan deduces that Peter's manuscript derived from a French exemplar, since French copies of this text omit books XIII-XVII. She locates Peter's manuscript in the stemma to the modern critical edition of Josephus, and concludes that the manuscript family of this branch of the stemma must have been produced at Paris in the first half of the twelfth century, probably at St. Victor. In the same vein, Sylwan finds that Peter used a version of Pseudo-Methodius that differs widely from that found in the 1898 edition of Ernst Sackur (xxiv-xxvi). Since this version circulated with an important early manuscript of the Scolastica Historia, Sylwan suggests that Peter was himself the author of this version.

Although Sylwan's editorial decisions mean that scholars interested in the work's reception will still need to consult the Patrologia Latina, her important new edition remains a very real and welcome accomplishment.