The Medieval Review 12.03.11

Bremmer, Jr., Rolf H. and Kees Dekker. Practice in Learning: The Transfer of Encyclopedic Knowledge in the Early Middle Ages. Mediaevalia Groningana New Series. Leuven: Peeters, 2010. Pp. xvi, 359. 58 EUR. ISBN: 978-90-429-2288-4.

Reviewed by:

John Howe
Texas Tech University

One major paradigm for understanding things medieval is the transmission of classical learning. Scholars can document the survival of classical literature, plot stemmae and libraries, track diffusion from the Mediterranean to the north, and determine how well medieval authors and schools had mastered the classical heritage and rate them all accordingly. Although this grand project is not alien to the spirit of medieval and renaissance litterati, it sometimes seems a little too focused inasmuch as, by judging one age according to its mastery of the achievements of another, it leaves the Middle Ages in the unfortunate position of a younger son who is appreciated (or not) primarily in terms of how well he has managed to follow in the footsteps of his brilliant older brother.

The Italian and Dutch organizers of "Storehouses of Wholesome Learning" ( do investigate "the transfer of knowledge from the Classical world to the early Middle Ages," but they are readier to credit little brother with some independent agency. They study "early medieval miscellanies of scholian texts," the glosses, florilegia, treatises, and encyclopedias produced from late antiquity to 1200 that generations of scholars have dismissed as derivative and uninteresting but which they themselves see as a lytic tradition in which knowledge was deliberately fragmented, broken down, and then reassembled into new, more useable forms. The center of their joint project is a series of four thematically-oriented international workshops, held from 2004 to 2008, which were intended to result in the publication of four volumes of papers: Foundations of Learning appeared in 2007; Practice in Learning is the volume reviewed here; two more volumes on the Fruits of Learning are in progress.

It would be premature to attempt to evaluate the whole project's success before all the "fruits of learning" have ripened. The present volume on Practice in Learning will perhaps prove to be the least coherently integrated. The problem, noted tangentially by one of the contributors, is that "the early medieval classroom is a subject of which we know very little" (93). To make an educated guess about whether any particular "early medieval miscellany of scholian texts" represents the groping efforts of a lost student, a formal collection assembled by a teacher, or an advanced scholarly dialogue of cutting-edge glosses, a modern scholar may need to investigate wear marks, glosses, manuscript context, and whole families of related texts. Glosses in vernacular languages offer helpful clues. Further complicating these researches is the amazingly international character of the post-Roman Latinate scholarly world, a place where Irish, Saxon, and other assorted pilgrim scholars seem to have wandered freely, apparently often accompanied by their working texts. The result is a volume that vacillates wildly between grand surveys of intellectual life and detailed investigations of single aspects of particular manuscripts.

Two sweeping surveys deserve special notice. In the second conference held at Leiden in 2005, Michael W. Herren delivered a keynote lecture on "Storehouses of Learning: Encyclopaedias and Other Reference Works in Ireland and Pre-Bedan Anglo-Saxon England" (1-18), emphasizing "the relative wealth of the resources of pre-Bedan centres of learning in both Ireland and England" (7), and documenting this generalization with lots of specific detail, including, for example, a summary of recent scholarship establishing that copies of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies and De natura rerum were known and utilized in Ireland around 650, that is, within a half generation of Isidore's death (9-10). László Sándor Chardonnens, "Appropriating Prognostics in Late Anglo-Saxon England: A Preliminary Source Study" (203-55), while praising the British tradition of detailed source studies, still finds much anonymous material understudied, citing as a case in point "prognostics" (texts describing techniques for predicting events in peoples' lifetimes on the basis of various signs): he identifies 176 different Old English texts, but contrary to the tradition that sees prognostic techniques as ancient Germanic pagan survivals he finds most, although shaped by Anglo-Saxon scribes, have Latin origins and he attempts to justify the value of an "intertextual" model for understanding how this material developed.

Many contributions study the Nachleben of particular texts. Mariken Teeuwen, "Glossing in Close Co-operation: Examples from Ninth-Century Martianus Capella Manuscripts" (85-99), analyzes information-packed glosses to wrestle with school book/library book questions. Patrizia Lendinara, "A Storehouse of Learned Vocabulary: The Abbo Glossaries in Anglo-Saxon England" (101-32) deals with Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Prs (a lesser known Abbo), whose poem on the Viking siege of Paris in the 880s segues rather improbably into a moralizing third book filled with exotic vocabulary. She investigates the manuscript witnesses to its career as a popular Anglo-Saxon school text and demonstrates its influence on some Anglo-Saxon glossaries. Kees Dekker, "Eucherius of Lyons in Anglo-Saxon England: The Continental Connections" (147-73) describes a fifth-century exegete's very modest success in the British Isles, where his work largely served as a quarry for encyclopedic information. Filippa Alcamesi, "Ælfric's Interrogationes Sigewulfi in Genesin: An Educational Dialogue" (175-202) looks at Ælfric's version of Alcuin's dialogue on Genesis, stripped down to the "most necessary questions" and translated and adapted into Old English (she includes a concordance of the two texts). Loredana Teresi,"Migrating Maps: The Case of the 'Three-Dimensional' Diagram for the quinque circuli mundi" (257-83) investigates the transmission of a peculiar mappa mundi with latitudinal zones (found in England and also to a lesser extent on the Continent) and attempts to understand its variants. Claudia Di Sciacca, "Teaching the Devil's Tricks: Anchorites' Exempla in Anglo Saxon England" (311-45) inventories English manuscripts containing the Vitae patrum (almost all from Late Saxon monastic reform centers) and contextualizes some of the excerpts.

Other contributions are close studies of single manuscripts. The Dutch organizers of Storehouses of Wholesome Learning were in part inspired by the fact that libraries in the Netherlands possess some early medieval manuscript witnesses to the encyclopaedic tradition. Here Rolf Bremmer Jr. closely analyzes "Leiden, Vossianus Lat. Q. 69 (pt. 2): Schoolbook or Proto-Encyclopaedic Miscellany?" (19-53), a St.-Gall manuscript apparently based upon more than one earlier insular collection; that same codex also figures in Alan Griffiths, "The Glosses on the Regula S. Benedicti in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Vossianus Latinus Q. 96: A Systematic Sifting, Old and New" (55-83); and in Dekkers' survey of the English Eucherius tradition, where some Eucherius borrowings are presented from it (169-73). Karin Olsen, in "Thematic Affinities between the Non-Liturgical Marginalia and the Old English Bede in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 41" (133-45) attempts to show relationships between charms, homelies, and other odd marginalia and the texts they flank. Concetta Giliberto uses manuscript context to interpret "The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday in Cotton Vespasian D. xiv: Role and Contextualization" (285-309).

Altogether this volume contains a variety of technical studies of interest to scholars investigating the transmission of classical culture. To systematically identify and study early medieval school texts of all kinds creates the necessary foundation for grander generalizations about schools and centers of learning. It is noteworthy, however, that Practice in Learning, like the one earlier volume in this series, primarily concerns Insular texts and their influence, a skew that may reflect more extensive and more idiosyncratically identifiable pre-Carolingian evidence as well as more advanced and intense British study of it. But if Insular glosses, summaries, and treatises continue to dominate what scholars know about the dynamism of early medieval school texts, then they may find themselves forced to show some grudging charity to Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Copyright (c) 2012 John Howe

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login