15.06.37, Smith, The Ten Commandments

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Alexander Andrée

The Medieval Review 15.06.37

Smith, Lesley. The Ten Commandments: Interpreting the Bible in the Medieval World. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions, 175. Leiden: Brill, 2014. pp. 233. ISBN: 9789004273924 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Alexander Andrée
University of Toronto

Despite ongoing efforts to remedy the situation, medieval biblical commentary is a genre still neglected by modern research. One reason for this is the often unwelcoming nature of the source material: biblical commentaries--the staple diet of the medieval schools both before and after the rise of universities--are extant in hundreds upon hundreds of manuscripts, well-thumbed schoolbooks void of decoration and written in small crammed hands; furthermore, these texts--long commentaries, sometimes on other commentary texts--often meet us in a bewildering array of versions and recensions, digests or expansions, themselves commentaries or abbreviations of yet other texts. All these aspects, however, are witnesses to the teaching pursued in the medieval schools and should incite, rather than discourage, scholars to delve deeper into the material: for it is a largely untapped resource for our knowledge of medieval intellectual and social life.

Lesley Smith, following in the footsteps of her famous praeceptrix Beryl Smalley (who is somewhat surprisingly described as having been "omniscient" [ix] by this volume's author), is well known to students of the field. Alongside numerous articles and studies on related subjects Smith is the author of Masters of the Sacred Page: Manuscripts of Theology in the Latin West to 1274, an introduction to the codicology of medieval theological schoolbooks, and The Glossa Ordinaria: the Making of a Medieval Bible Commentary, a vademecum and guide to the study of this immensely-popular digest of patristic biblical exegesis. In her most recent work, the book at present under review, Smith has turned her attention to medieval attitudes to the most fundamental of Western moral prescriptions, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments written by God on two stone tablets and given to Moses on Mount Sinai as part of the covenant with His chosen people.

As with so much else in the Old Law and the Old Covenant, the Ten Commandments proved to be of crucial importance also in the New Covenant, regarded as the basis of each individual's moral life; as such, the Decalogue elicited much exegesis by medieval theologians. In the book the reader is presented with the thought of a wide range of medieval commentators and commentaries, ranging from the early twelfth to the early sixteenth century, most notably the Glossa ordinaria on the Bible, Hugh of St Victor, Peter Lombard, Peter Comestor, Stephen Langton, Alexander of Hales, John of La Rochelle, Hugh of St Cher and Bonaventure. For the novice in the field, as part of a first chapter entitled "Approaches" (1-15), short introductions to these authors and texts are provided on pp. 7-12. The interpretations and opinions of these masters--alongside those of several others: Alan of Lille, Philo Judaeus, Rashi, Nicolas of Cusa to name but a few--are thereupon presented in the seven chapters that follow. The first chapter, "Law" (16-47), discusses medieval conceptions of law, eternal and natural, and the written expressions of these in the Bible: how to keep the law, what happens if you break the law, and the question of whether or not keeping the law provides a means for justification. Chapter two, "Number" (48-75), deals with notions of medieval number symbolism and discussions of how different exegetical traditions divided differently the Ten Commandments on the two stone tablets of Moses: though some commentators placed five commandments on each tablet, it was the division according to the object of the prescriptions on the stone tablet--three pertaining to God and seven to the neighbour--that won the day. Subsequently, chapter three, "God" (76-106), treats the three commandments that relate to God, written thus on the first tablet, and chapter five ("The Hand and the Mind", 125-153) and chapter 6 ("Word and Truth", 154-174) discuss the seven written on the second tablet and relate to the neighbour. The intervening chapter four, "Neighbour" (107-124), outlines what the commentators mean by this word. Chapter seven, "Conformity and Diversity" (175-211), contextualizes the preceding discussion and offers considerations of the environment in which the scholars represented in the volume lived and worked. The volume concludes with the author's "Last Words" on the topic (212-216).

As the author points out towards the end of the book, this is no systematic approach: rather, she has "chosen to fashion an integrated series of questions and answers as though the views of our medieval interpreters could slot together interchangeably to create a single structure" (175). Such a selective approach, needless to say, runs the risk of being subjective and not representative of the authors and texts involved. "It might have been more faithful to the material", the author continues, "to present it commentator by commentator" (175). Certainly, in its present shape, the book is difficult to use as a reference tool: in order to look up the opinion of a single commentator, one must go through every single entry in the index and yet run the risk of not finding--on account of the choices made by the author--what one is looking for. But the purpose of the book is not to be such a tool, but rather a display of medieval opinions, a single narrative, as it were, that nevertheless presents "a pretty unbroken prospect."

In doing so, Smith gives voice to the opinions--however select--of medieval scholars otherwise accessible only in forbidding editions and even more forbidding manuscripts. Indeed, reading through the bibliography of manuscripts and printed texts (217-221) it is striking to note that, perhaps with the exception of the Church Fathers, very few of the studied authors are available in modern critical editions; indeed, some are still only available in manuscript. The works of Hugh of St Cher, for example, and Nicholas of Lyra, two of the most important biblical commentators of the medieval period--respectively representative of the Dominican and Franciscan theological "schools"--must be consulted in early printed editions; the Historia scholastica of Peter Comestor, master of the cathedral school in Paris in the twelfth century, a very popular work in its own time, is still only available in a highly unreliable edition in the Patrologia Latina; for the biblical commentaries of Peter Lombard and Stephen Langton one must head straight for the manuscripts. The biblical Glossa ordinaria is probably the most telling example: the text used for this book and, indeed, much of contemporary scholarship on medieval biblical interpretation, is the editio princeps of the late fifteenth century, which presents a version of the biblical Gloss to a large degree far removed from the manuscripts of the twelfth or even the thirteenth century. For example, there were no less than four versions of the Gloss on Matthew in circulation, even in the twelfth century, and none of them give exactly the same text as the editio princeps! This state of affairs--the fundamental texts of the theological movement of the twelfth and early thirteenth century still unedited or even unprinted--is depressing, and Smith's volume, in its own way, should be praised for the, albeit inherently limited, light it throws on the crucial texts and authors which remain hidden as a result of this neglect. Even so, there must remain a question about just how much can be said with accuracy about the period without the editorial work first having been undertaken. A decade or so of scholars taking the time to immerse themselves in the critical scrutiny of editing these texts would open up new perspectives and allow us to rethink the shaky foundations on which medieval biblical scholarship rest today.

This book, therefore, not only provides a wealth of information of medieval opinion on the Decalogue; it also acts as an urgent call for modern editions of medieval biblical commentary texts.

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