It is surprising that there is no major study in English of the contemptus mundi tradition in Roman and medieval religious thought. Beginning with the Roman Stoics, most notably the first book of Cicero's Tusculanae Disputationes, the notion that the world was only worthy of scorn elided seamlessly with the sympathies of late ancient moralists and with the ascetic ambitions of early Christian monks, for whom the active denial of the saeculum, expressed through the abandonment of wealth and worldly prestige, was a hallmark of their religious vocation. The genre flourished in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when new currents of monastic sensibility inspired the rebuke of the secular activities of clerics and cloistered religious alike. Bernard of Cluny's De contemptu mundi, written in the middle of the twelfth century, stands as the classic expression of this tradition.  In 2966 lines written in a demanding rhymed meter (tripertiti dactylici caudati), Bernard described the rewards awaiting the blessed who focused their gaze on the splendors of Heaven and repudiated the vanity of all other ambitions. Most of the poem was given over to scathing satires of various social classes and a long lament for the ills of society. Bernard's poem enjoyed considerable success among late medieval readers, surviving in fifteen manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Unfortunately, it has cast such a long shadow over this period that other medieval examples of the genre, like the withering Satires of Sextus Amarcius and Pope Innocent III's De miseriae humanae conditionis, have not received as much attention as they deserve. The same fate has befallen the writings of Hugh of Miramar (d. c. 1250), a thirteenth-century school master who retired from the world around 1236 as a Carthusian monk at Montrieux. During his seclusion, Hugh completed several compositions, most notably two versions of a treatise in the contemptus mundi tradition, entitled De hominis miseria, mundi et inferni contemptu. In the volume under review, Fabrice Wendling presents a critical edition of the shorter version of Hugh's treatise, accompanied by a lengthy preface that provides an ample introduction to this little-known author's life and works.
Born sometime in the late twelfth century, Hugh of Miramar studied canon law at Bologna and by 1214 he had become a professor at the University of Montpellier. Between 1220 and 1230, he compiled his Flores iuris canonici, the only work by his hand written before his entry into Montrieux. Upon joining the Carthusians around 1236, Hugh busied himself with more writing projects, including an explanation of the meanings of the number four, entitled Tractatus super antonomasia et mysterio huius numeri quatuor. His treatise De hominis miseria remained a work in progress during the last decade of his life and survives in two versions, one long and one short. Wendling argues that Hugh composed the long version of the treatise in 1242-1243, but redacted it before his death to produce the short version presented in the volume under review. Hugh's "short" treatise comprises nine chapters of uneven length (the fifth chapter is much longer than the others, the ninth much shorter). Following earlier commentators on De hominis miseria, Wendling delineates four major sections of the work. The first section (Chapters 1-4) articulates the classic themes of the contemptus mundi tradition: the frailty of the human condition, the fallen state of the Church ("gangrenée," to use Wendling's evocative word choice, by the evils of heresy and simony) and the impurities of the world. The second section (Chapters 5-6) presents personifications of the virtues and the vices, arrayed against one another in a manner reminiscent of Prudentius' Psychomachia, though on a much more modest scale. The third section (Chapters 7-8) introduces two more characters, Fear-of-Death (timor mortis) and Love-of-God (amor Dei). Fear-of-Death teaches the reader about the nature of Hell, the character of the Devil, and the fate of the damned on the basis of scriptural authorities. Love-of-God, by contrast, describes the pleasures of paradise, the table of the Lord in Heaven, and the qualities of the saints. The final section of the treatise (Chapter 9) stands at odds with the rest of the work in tone and content: it is a first person account of the author's spiritual struggle, expressed in terms of an argument between his spirit and his flesh mediated by his conscience. This final chapter ends with an account of the vision that anticipated Hugh's entry into the Carthusian Order. The edition concludes with two appendices of related Latin texts: a longer account of the vision that propelled Hugh toward the Carthusians; and ample excerpts from the versio longior of his De hominis miseria preserved in Paris BN Latin 4148. Many pages of learned textual adnotationes by Wendling and two helpful indices of scriptural citations and other sources round out the volume.
On the whole, this is an excellent addition to the Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis catalogue, for it calls attention to a little-known medieval author and provides a useful introduction to his life and his principle work. Wendling's preface is particularly generous. Many of the introductory sections are essential reading for historians with no prior knowledge of this author, particularly those on the state of research regarding his known compositions and his spirituality as expressed in his treatise. Moreover, the bibliography (xci-cvii) is very thorough and the two color plates of pages from manuscript witnesses of the De hominis miseria in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris give a clear indication of the materials from which Wendling created his edition. The introduction would have benefited, however, from a longer discussion that situated Hugh of Miramar's treatise within the broader traditions of Carthusian spirituality and the contemptus mundi genre more generally. Lastly, Wendling spends a bit too much time weighing the question of whether Hugh's De hominis miseria is a work of autobiography. To be sure, the treatise preserves some fascinating autobiographical details, but that fact alone does not make it a self-conscious work of autobiography, in the modern sense of the word. Rather, it seems to me that Hugh makes reference to his own experience of conversio to provide his readers with a concrete example of someone whose tenacity of devotion has allowed him to leave the world behind and heap scorn upon its so-called rewards.
1. R. E. Pepin, Scorn for the World: Bernard of Cluny's 'De contemptu mundi': The Latin Text with English Translation and an Introduction (East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1991). See also Scott G. Bruce, "Nunc homo, cras humus: A Twelfth-Century Cluniac Poem on the Certainty of Death (Troyes, Médiathèque de l'Agglomeration troyenne 918, fols. 78v-79v)," The Journal of Medieval Latin 16 (2006): 95-110.