12.09.21, Niskanen, The Letter Collections of Anselm of Canterbury

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Rachel Koopmans

The Medieval Review 12.09.21

Niskanen, Samu. The Letter Collections of Anselm of Canterbury. Instrvmenta Patristica et Mediaevalia: Research on the Inheritance of Early and Medieval Christianity, 61. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers n.v., 2011. Pp. iii, 348. ISBN: 978-2-503-54075-7.

Reviewed by:
Rachel Koopmans

Letter collections are among our most important medieval sources. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries in particular, the leading lights of the day conducted business, created networks of friends, and showed off their rhetorical talents via a blizzard of letter-writing. Making collections of one's letters became highly fashionable in this period, which is fortunate for us, for nearly all the letters that survive were encased in such collections. Sometimes authors themselves created their own collections. Sometimes others collected letters for them. Sometimes multiple collections were made, reflecting different points in a prelate's career. All such letter collections might be merged or split or corrupted by later copyists. Often, as in the case of Anselm of Canterbury's 475 known letters, the result is an immensely complicated manuscript tradition, with no clear guideposts to determine who might have first created an individual collection or what its contents originally were. Anselm himself refers to collections of his letters being made at two, possibly three separate points in his career--twice while he was abbot of Bec (1079-1093), and once when he was archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109). No original letter sent or received by Anselm has survived, nor is there any known manuscript that can be confidently read as an original authorial collection.

Many readers will be aware that F. S. Schmitt OSB published an edition of Anselm's letters. It appeared in six volumes between 1938 and 1961. Samu Niskanen has undertaken his work because of the inadequacies of this edition: Schmitt, Niskanen writes, "never put together a comprehensive and systematic survey of the textual tradition, and furthermore the critical apparatus of his edition reveals that at times his work was unsystematic and inaccurate…it is impossible to understand the interrelationship of the manuscripts from the edition" (22). These inadequacies have resulted in mistaken views and considerable debates among scholars over Anselm's letter collections, particularly over the significance of London, Lambeth Palace Library 59, in the textual tradition. Niskanen's book, published in Brepol's Instrumenta Patristica et Mediaevalia series, summarizes the results of his new and painstaking examination of dozens of manuscripts. In the course of the book, he links together the manuscript witnesses and reconstructs the probable contents of three major authorial collections, which he terms Niskanen carried out his detailed manuscript studies using the "traditional" methods of textual analysis familiar to medievalists, but he also utilized computer-based analyses to help test and confirm his understanding of the relationship between the manuscripts and his proposed stemma for the three major and three minor collections. His overall goal is "to establish a store and framework of information essential to the execution of a critical edition" (22).

The result is a very impressive book, one that undoubtedly supersedes Schmitt's study and is indispensable reading for any scholar utilizing Anselm's letters in any capacity. In the book's first section or introduction, Niskanen spells out the parameters of his study and discusses recent historiography on Anselm's letters. The second section is a very clear and readable overview of letter-writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in general and Anselm's letter-writing in particular, including an interesting analysis of how Anselm arranged names in salutations in line with his own perceived position within social hierarchies. Niskanen's well-crafted subsections on the delivery, reception, preservation and collection of letters are especially worth the reading. The third and by far the longest section of the book is Niskanen's analysis of the textual tradition of the three major collections. Here, Niskanen begins with the Here, Niskanen begins with the α collection, likely created under Anselm's direction at Bec c.1086 and consisting of 60-100 letters. Niskanen cautiously notes that this is a "hypothetical" collection and its existence "cannot be positively determined" (74), though the evidence Niskanen puts forward reads very convincingly. The most important surviving witness to α is BL Cotton Nero A. VII, a late eleventh-century Rochester manuscript that Niskanen discusses at length. The second collection, β, "can be linked with Anselm's efforts to collect his letters in the winter of 1092-93," shortly before he departed for Canterbury (181). Niskanen further subdivides this collection into two branches he terms β1 and β2, the first representing a Bec and the second a Canterbury branch. Niskanen's discussion of the manuscript witnesses to β is very extensive, and I will highlight just three points of interest. Niskanen demonstrates that BL Cotton Claudius A. XI, the manuscript that contains more of Anselm's letters than any other, is a much more important witness to the textual tradition than Schmitt and others have believed (see 166-169). He also points out that Paris, BNF lat. 14762, fols. 1r-23v, is a striking case of a set of "real" letters written by Anselm--that is, letters that were almost certainly sent-- that were abridged and selected so as to serve as a model letter collection, an ars dictaminis (see 162-164). Another intriguing manuscript, Troyes Médiathèque 1614, was designed for readers "who were not interested in Anselm's activity outside the monastic sphere" (174). With only one exception, letters Anselm sent to the pope or to lay recipients were excluded from the first forty- eight letters found in this manuscript. After working through letters closely concerned with issues of the monastic life, the copyist then went back to the beginning of his exemplar and copied in the letters he found less interesting, namely those more concerned with church- state politics.

In his discussion of α and β in the third section of the book, Niskanen frequently refers to ω, the last major collection of Anselm's letters which included correspondence from both Bec and Canterbury. The ω collection may have been commenced after Anselm's death, or he may have commissioned it in his final years at Canterbury. In the last part of the book's third section, Niskanen argues that the latter is more likely--that "ω was begun while Anselm was still alive"--and that Thidricus, one of Anselm's secretaries, had a role in the creation of ω, which may have been "an updatable register book" (214). Schmitt had argued that this Thidricus was the maker of Lambeth Palace 59, a theory Niskanen rejects. He suggests instead that that Eadmer of Canterbury may well have directed the making of Lambeth Palace 59 and another closely related manuscript at the scriptorium of Christ Church in the 1120s. Niskanen builds this argument in a subsection entitled "The Making of the Major Collections and Manuscript L," (200-225), an especially important part of the book that is remarkably readable despite the complexity of the material.

In the book's fourth section, Niskanen turns to the "minor collections." None of these appear to have been authorial (one definitely could not have been), and they include no more than fifteen letters. However, these collections circulated more widely than the major collections, and are "significant historical sources" for how Anselm's correspondence was read outside of Bec and Canterbury: "Their coherent selection of high-quality letters were admirably suited to the needs of communities outside the focus of Anselmian influence" (228). One of the minor collections appears to have been, interestingly, created at the nunnery of Shaftesbury (see 258-259), while another could have been created by Bishop Osmund of Salisbury (273-274). Many of the manuscripts Niskanen discusses in this section are compilations of a broad range of Anselm's works, including philosophical and devotional treatises as well as letters. Niskanen is naturally interested primarily in the letters, but the ways in which these manuscripts shaped medieval readers' understanding of Anselm's works more broadly would be an interesting avenue for further research. Niskanen turns to the history of the printed editions of Anselm's letters from incunabula to the Patrologia Latina in the fifth section of the book. Niskanen's diligence and scrupulous attention to detail is as evident here as in the rest of his work. One has to admire his willingness to tackle what he terms the "almost indigestible mess, characterized by duplication and misattribution" that is the edition of Anselm's letters in the PL (275).

In the book's conclusion, Niskanen outlines "the desiderata for a new edition" (289). He believes that two manscripts should serve as the base texts for the edition, namely Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 135 for the Bec correspondence, and Lambeth Palace 59 for the Canterbury correspondence, though "the editorial text should, naturally, correct the mistakes of the base manuscripts with the aid of our other witnesses" (291). In the case of the Bec letters, the goal would be to reconstruct the probable arrangement of the letters within Anselm's authorial collection The arrangement of letters in this new edition "would differ considerably from Schmitt's arrangement, which derives partly from earlier editions and partly from his own relative chronology" (292). Such rearrangement will create cross-referencing difficulties with earlier scholarship, but there is no question that this should take place. "already under construction" (293). With so much of the groundwork prepared in this book, one hopes that the edition is indeed well underway and can be published soon.

Scholars working on Anselm and his letters need to read this book, of course, but scholars interested in any of the manuscripts Niskanen examines should also consult it (there is a manuscripts cited index). Scholars concerned with letters in the eleventh and twelfth century will find much of note. I also believe that this book could be very profitably used in courses on manuscript studies and text editing. Niskanen's presentation of his arguments and evidence is extraordinarily clear, thorough, and carefully structured. He uses numerous charts and graphics to illustrate and enumerate his points, and there are also eleven black-and-white plates of key manuscript pages. This book would make an excellent introduction to the nitty-gritty world of text editing for graduate and advanced undergraduate students. Niskanen has untied the knots of a particularly tangled textual tradition, and the multi-faceted study of Anselm's letters--which constitute one-half of his overall literary output--will greatly benefit as a result.

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Rachel Koopmans