18.05.13, Donati, Geoffrey of Aspall, Parts 1 and 2

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Neil Lewis

The Medieval Review 18.05.13

Donati, Sylvia, and Cecilia Trifogli, eds. Cecilia Trifogli and E. Jennifer Ashworth, trans. . Geoffrey of Aspall, Part 1 Questions on Aristotle's Physics. Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi 26. Oxford UK:Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. Part I:cii, 783; Part II: vii, 550. ISBN: 978-0-19-726599-4; 978-0-19-726600-7. (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Neil Lewis
Georgetown University

The study of thirteenth-century English natural philosophy is still in its early days. This is due in part to the lack of printed editions, modern or otherwise, of the numerous works in this area still extant in medieval manuscripts, usually in the form of commentaries on Aristotle's writings. These works are not only of great philosophical interest in their own right, but can also be expected to throw light on developments--especially in England--in theology and in other areas of medieval philosophy. The two-part work under review helps to fill this void. Silvia Donati and Cecilia Trifogli, the two scholars who have done the most to explore thirteenth-century English commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, have prepared an impressive Latin edition of Geoffrey of Aspall's questions on the Physics. This edition is accompanied by an excellent English translation by E. Jennifer Ashworth and Cecilia Trifogli.

Geoffrey of Aspall was an eminent English secular commentator on Aristotle's natural philosophy and metaphysics in the period ca. 1250-1263. Judging by the example in one work of all roads leading to London, he taught at Oxford. He worked during what Daniel Callus decribed as the third stage of the assimilation of Aristotle at Oxford, the stage when, after first producing paraphrases of Aristotle's texts, and then detailed exposition (as in the commentaries by Adam of Buckfield [† 1285]), masters were writing commentaries comprised of questions without exposition. Aspall's commentaries, including the work under review, are primarily of this latter form. Aristotle's writings serve as the starting point for wide-ranging inquiries concerned not so much with the interpretation of his texts as such, as with issues raised by them and their commentators, notably Averroes. Aspall wrote commentaries of this sort upon most of the libri naturales, including commentaries on the Physics, De caelo et mundo, De generatione et corruptione, De anima, De sensu et sensato, as well as a commentary on the Metaphysics. Most of these works remain unedited. Exceptions are an edition of his commentary on De somno et vigilia, and, perhaps, an edition of an anonymous commentary on De anima traditionally ascribed to Aspall, and editions of selections from an anonymous commentary on the Metaphysics also traditionally ascribed to Aspall (for references, see Part 1, n. 16). However, Donati and Trifogli note that while Aspall commented on the Metaphysics and De anima, it is not clear that the works edited are really by Aspall, since references to Aspall's commentaries on the Metaphysics and De anima in the questions on the Physics are not verified in them. The commentary on books I-IV of the Physics edited in Part 1, by contrast, is explicitly ascribed to Aspall in an early hand in a late thirteenth-century English manuscript (Oxford, Merton College, MS 272), and Enya Macrae and Silvia Donati have established with reasonable certainty the attribution to Aspall also of the questions on books VI and VIII.

The extant manuscripts do not contain questions on much of book IV (on the void and time) or on book VII. As for book V, the editors include in an appendix a transcription of questions on this book that are included in a manuscript containing authentic questions on book I-III, VI and VIII, as well as other works by Aspall. These questions on book V may well be by Aspall, though the attribution is uncertain. In any event, Aspall's surviving commentary on the Physics is very substantial. Aspall takes up a wide range of topics introduced by the Physics or later commentators, often in considerable depth. For example, thirty questions in book I concern prime matter, including such issues as whether it has parts, and if so, in what manner, how parts in matter are related to parts in quantity, whether it has potencies, and so forth. Other topics treated at length include, but are not limited to, motion, infinity, continuity, place, the eternity of the world, and the motion of the heavens.

Aspall was writing against a background of earlier thirteenth-century commentaries on the libri naturales, many of which are still extant but remain unedited. While Donati and Trifogli have thrown much light on thirteenth-century English commentaries on the Physics and their complex relationships, in this edition they identify Aspall's references (usually made by name) to Aristotle, Averroes, and Augustine, but generally do not track down his frequently mentioned anonymous contemporary sources. To do so could have added years to the preparation of this edition, if indeed it could be done. In my opinion it was wise to get Aspall's text into print and to leave the identification of these sources for future study.

The editors do, however, note some unnamed contemporary sources, in particular, Robert Grosseteste († 1253), who had a pervasive indirect influence, and the author of a number of commentaries on Aristotle's works, including the Physics and De generatione et corruptione. These commentaries have been attributed to Richard Rufus of Cornwall († after 1259) by Rega Wood and me and are an important source for English commentaries on the libri naturales. The Richard Rufus Project (http://rrp.stanford.edu/) has found use of them in other works attributed to Aspall, and their impact is underestimated even in the present work, where a number of uses of them are not noted. As for Grosseteste, who had developed a so-called metaphysics of light in terms of which he interpreted Aristotle's natural philosophy, his influence on English natural philosophy still remains to be studied in detail, but is evident in the importance thirteenth-century English thinkers, including Aspall, placed on light for an understanding of the workings of the natural world. Even so, Aspall does not appear to display any knowledge of particular works by Grosseteste or mention him, even though in some quarters of mid-thirteenth-century Oxford his writings were exercising a direct influence. Thus Richard Rufus of Cornwall uses Grosseteste's commentary on the Physics in his Oxford Sentences commentary, composed ca. 1250, and in his earlier Scriptum on the Metaphysics, and Thomas of York employs Grosseteste's commentary on the Posterior Analytics in his Sapientiale. These two thinkers were both prominent Oxford Franciscans. Possibly direct access to Grosseteste's writings was limited to thinkers with close connections to or membership in the Franciscan order, an order on which Grosseteste exercised a strong influence in England, having been the Oxford Franciscans' first lector, though not a Franciscan himself.

In a careful examination of the quality and relationship of the manuscripts, the editors note that "the textual tradition of Aspall's questions on the Physics consists entirely of different versions, none of which completely coincides with any other" (Part 1, xxxiv). The extant manuscripts do not all contain the same questions, and when they do, the texts they give differ, often substantially. These differences concern not the doctrine presented, but its linguistic formulation. They appear to be due the fact that the manuscripts probably provide us with different reportationes or student records of Aspall's lectures, which have been subjected to later non-authorial editorial interventions, including inclusion of references to other works by Aspall. The editors plausibly argue that the questions edited in Part 1, on books I-III of the Physics, stem from a single set of lectures, and questions on other books may also stem from the same set of lectures, though the two manuscripts presenting questions on book VI have been subject to much more extensive editorial interventions and seem to include some material originating elsewhere in Aspall's questions.

Given the questions' origin in student notes and that for some material there is only a single witness, there is a frequent need for the editors to emend the text presented in the manuscripts; this is especially so in the case of book VI, for which the two surviving manuscripts are of poor quality. These emendations have been made intelligently, with the resulting Latin edition providing a clear and coherent text. The paragraphing and punctuation (due to the editors) clearly brings out the text's structure and sense, and the use of a classicized orthography improves its clarity and accessibility. The facing-page English translation aims to find a middle ground between being "grindingly literal" or "overly free," and succeeds, being both accurate and readable. Even so, the nature of the subject matter and the elaborate conceptual framework within which Aspall works will prove difficult for readers unacquainted with medieval natural philosophy and metaphysics. Fortunately, the editors have provided a lucid overview of the main topics considered in the commentary, such as the long and fascinating account of the nature of prime matter and the treatment of motion. This overview helps not only to explain Aspall's thought, but also provides an excellent insight into the state of play regarding a number of central issues in mid-thirteenth-century English natural philosophy.

The second part also includes indexes of authors, names, and of more important words. The last of these would have been more useful had it been an analytical index, rather than simply a list of pages on which a given word in question is used. But this is a minor gripe.

In sum, these two volumes are an excellent and essential resource for students of thirteenth-century natural philosophy and the reception of Aristotle's Physics, and will be of great interest more generally to students of medieval philosophy and theology.

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