The Medieval Review 10.11.03

Throop, Priscilla, trans. Hrabanus Maurus, De Universo: The Peculiar Properties of Words and Their Mystical Significance. (2 vols). Charlotte, Vermont: Medieval MS, 2009. Pp. 739. . $50 .

Reviewed by:

John J. Contreni
Purdue University
Contreni@purdue.edu

Hrabanus Maurus (ca. 776-856), born in the reign of Charlemagne and died in the reign of his grandson, Louis the German, lived an interesting life in interesting times. A monk of Fulda, he was sent to the monastery of Saint-Martin in Tours to study with Alcuin, before returning to Fulda as the community's school master. Right from the start, Hrabanus knew how to use his intellectual talents to reach beyond Fulda to create networks for himself and his community. His earliest work, a series of illustrated figural poems on the Cross, In honorem sanctae crucis, was disseminated far and wide to patrons and potential patrons. In 822 he became abbot of Fulda, but in the early 840s he resigned the abbacy, a political casualty of the intense conflict that pitted the sons of Louis the Pious and their supporters against each other. His hiatus from leadership provided him with time to devote to study and writing. It was during this period that Hrabanus composed De universo (About Everything), a copy of which he sent to King Louis the German who already had Hrabanus's earlier scriptural commentaries. In 847, he was appointed archbishop of Mainz, a post he served vigorously until his death.

Hrabanus Maurus was of a type with other Carolingian public intellectuals who were mostly clerics and who served as abbots or bishops while also intimately involved with politics and politicians. One thinks of Alcuin, Theodulf of Orleans, Lupus of Ferrières, Agobard of Lyons, Hincmar of Reims, and a parade of others. Most of these scholars/leaders were also intellectual polymaths whose interests ranged over all the liberal arts and Scripture and whose writings embraced several genres, including narratives of all sorts, poetry, sermons, exegesis, and extensive correspondence. Among the luminaries of the Carolingian age, Hrabanus Maurus has been under appreciated. Patricia Throop remarks, with many, that his works "are characterized by erudition rather than by original thought" (1: xii). [1] Hrabanus certainly produced a lot, an enormous body of biblical commentaries, a treatise on the training of clergy, a manual on computus, a martyrology, and many tracts on specific topics such as child oblation, penance, and the virtues and vices. In all these, Hrabanus, in league with other scholars of the Carolingian age, drew copiously from the patristic legacy. It could be argued that Hrabanus and his colleagues gave the fathers their first great audience in the ninth century when they cut and pasted, adapted, synthesized, and otherwise manipulated the patristic legacy for their own needs. Rather than a thoughtless activity, their juxtaposition of a wide variety of sources put to new uses took real ingenuity and editorial skill. While the end product was always their own, they could also claim that it was grounded in authentic Christian tradition.

During his "sabbatical" years between abbacy and archbishopric, Hrabanus conceived a project to put together a work, as he told another recipient, Bishop Haimo of Halberstadt, "about the nature of things and particular attributes of words, but also about their mystical meaning. Thus you might find, placed contiguously, each historical and allegorical explanation" (1: xviii). So, About Everything, is about words, Latin words, about 3,150 of them to judge from a rough count of Throop's useful indices. There are hundreds of biblical place names and personal names and many more words denoting seemingly ordinary objects such as "leg band" (2: 305), "vial" (2: 325), "parsley" (2: 245), "fat" (1: 170, 224), "eyelids" and even "upper eyelids" (1: 156-7). None of these or any of the others, however, were "ordinary." Words made up the sacred writings and were themselves implicitly sacred if one, first, knew what they meant (Latin was a learned second language for Louis the German, Haimo of Halberstadt, and all the students passing through cathedral and monastic schools), and, second, if one knew their deeper, mystical significance. Thus, "Arvina is fat sticking to the skin. Flesh without fat is called pulpa because it throbs, palpitat; it often springs back; many people call this viscus because it is glutinous. 'Fat' sometimes signifies the richness of the love of God, as in Leviticus (Lv 3.3)...Likewise, 'fat' signifies the abundance of earthly things, as in this passage of Job (Jb 15.26)...'Fat' is used in a bad way when it signifies the thickness of evil, as in the psalmist (Ps 16.10), 'They have shut up their fat'" (1: 170). This is a fairly typical entry. Hrabanus provided the natural, dictionary meaning of a Latin word followed by several different meanings attached to the word in various biblical verses. Learners learned that a word could have multiple meanings depending on its context and its allegorical or mystical use and that some of the uses were "good" and some were "bad" (see, especially, the entry for "horses": 1: 228-9). Thus, About Everything became a rich storehouse of meaning in which one could shop for many more meanings than the basic sense of the 3,150 key works. "Fat" could be understood in at least three ways. Hrabanus's reference book provided answers to readers, while it also provided them with possibilities when they were encouraged to add to the storehouse of mystical meaning. Although Hrabanus noted that "islands" are rarely mentioned in Scripture, he added a section on named islands (2: 26-31) just the same: "Perhaps it may please the reader if he find something dictated in our little book whence he may have material for transferring their significance to spiritual understanding, if it anywhere seem fitting" (2: 26). Mystical meanings were available to all. The canon could grow depending on the ingenuity of readers.

The "little book" is not so little, consisting of over 600 columns in Migne's Patrologia Latina (111: 9-614) and just over 700 pages in Patricia Throop's translation. Hrabanus organized his word horde around 22 "books" inspired, he told King Louis, by Jerome who said that the divine law in the Old Testament was laid out in 22 books. Each book is divided into subsections, over 300 in all, including "deserts," "pathless places," "delightful places," "sunny places," "hazardous places," and "naval yards," among the divisions in Book 13, "Mountains, Hills, Valleys, Woods."

Patricia Throop has provided a service to medievalists and their students in rendering this first English version of Hrabanus's compendium. The translation is clear and straight-forward. Throop provides scriptural references, even where they went unreported in Migne's edition. The translator's footnotes indicate alternate etymologies or point out incongruities in Hrabanus's derivations. For example, in Book 7 ("The Ages of Man, Relationships, Domesticated Animals") when Hrabanus wrote "A young girl is named virgo from a greener, viridior, age; just as a twig is virga and a calf is vitula"(1: 194), the translator commented, "virgo is perh. virga, of dubious origin, unrelated to vitula". But the apparatus does not indicate Hrabanus's sources, mostly Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, and his vast reading in patristic sources. There are (unexplained) source references in the text of the translation to the apocryphal Vita Adae et Evae (1:282, where the edition in Migne refers to Isa 14) and to the Rule of Benedict (1: 31; 2: 97) where the Migne edition refers to Mt 23.3 and Sap 16). The translator's introduction is brief, general, and uninformed by pertinent scholarship, such as Elisabeth Heyse, Hrabanus Maurus' Enzyklopaedie 'De rerum naturis': Untersuchungen zu den Quellen und zur Methode der Kompilation (1969). The list of extant manuscripts 1: xiii-xiv) appears to be Web- based (compare http://www.mun.ca/rabanus/).

In sum: the translation comes unaccompanied by any of the scholarly apparatus one expects. Readers will encounter Hrabanus's work as medieval readers would have. There might be something to be said for experiencing About Everything this way, if only to be forcibly reminded of Lesley Poles Hartley's aphorism, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

-------- Notes:

1. See also "NNDB: Tracking the Entire World" (http://www.nndb.com/people/379/000103070/): "All of them are characterized by erudition (he knew even some Greek and Hebrew) rather than by originality of thought."