H. E. J. Cowdrey has devoted a good deal of his long scholarly career to the study of Pope Gregory VII, and this complete translation of Gregory's Register (Registrum Vaticanum 2 in the Vatican Archives) complements his definitive account of the Pope's reign, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. Cowdrey has provided a short but penetrating Introduction, useful footnotes, and a comprehensive index of Allusions.
A glance at any page in Cowdrey's 1998 study of Gregory VII reveals the central importance of the Registrum for any detailed analysis of the Pope's goals and activities. That makes it all the more frustrating that we know so little about how this register of outgoing letters came to be compiled. The Register is not comprehensive, representative or consistent in its coverage. It contains 390 items, probably no more than 25% of the letters dispatched. It is not possible to detect any method in selecting letters to be included, in fact we cannot even assume that there was such a method. Some years in Gregory's reign yield a much smaller crop of registered letters than others: Cowdrey suggests, plausibly enough, that when they were hard-pressed to send out letters, papal scribes had to forgo the luxury of registration. Not that registration of a letter is proof that it was dispatched. And the registered texts do not necessarily reflect with accuracy those letters which were sent out, for comparison between letters transcribed in the Register and surviving letters stored by recipients reveal discrepancies, showing that drafts were used.
The Register retains its mystery; as Cowdrey points out, it has escaped recent examination from a codicological and palaeographical perspective. But when all these caveats have been made, Cowdrey remains correct in his comment (xvi-xvii) that the Register "makes it possible to approach Gregory VII more closely and to understand him more fully than any other pope of the early and central middle ages," that is until Innocent III (1198-1216). This is because Gregory's aspirations, views and style of government are so clearly revealed. The nature and quality of the translation are therefore crucial, and in this respect it has to be said that Cowdrey disappoints. In his own words, "The translation is...a literal one which aims to follow as closely as possible the text of the original." All too often the result is an English so stilted that its meaning has to be laboriously quarried from the page. To take one example at random, on p. 251 (letter 5.6) we encounter the following: "But as for you who, led astray by I know not what fear or by what pretext have polluted your hands and tongues by a new and unheard-of schism and accordingly have fallen into the bond of anathema, we say separately that if in the church of Aquileia, through your striving in sincerity of purpose, someone worthy and suitable shall be chosen to be bishop, then with his counsel and with that of the brothers who have firmly continued in the bosom of holy mother church, we are prepared so far as under the cloak of divine favour we shall be able to show mercy to you and to bear the weight of your error so far as with God giving solace it shall be granted to venture and to be able." What purpose is served by such tortured syntax? A long sentence which flows with clarity and even elegance in Latin demands to be broken down into several sentences in English. The languages are different and this has to be recognised in translation. Cowdrey's misguided faithfulness to the original undermines the point of the volume, for scholars will continue to read Gregory's letters in the original Latin (in Caspar's excellent edition), while undergraduate and even postgraduate students will give up the struggle to make sense of it. Bizarrely, this new translation is less accessible than the selection from the Register which was translated by Ephraim Emerton in the Records of Civilization series seventy years ago.
It would be ungracious to end on a sour note: this substantial translation is a labour of love and hopefully it will prove its worth. Both author and publisher deserve to be thanked. But the point must be made that fitness for purpose has to be a central consideration in the provision of translations from medieval Latin.