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22.01.06 Engels/Vande Veire, Petrus Abaelardus: Sermones

22.01.06 Engels/Vande Veire, Petrus Abaelardus: Sermones

This volume presents the first complete modern edition of the Sermons of renowned twelfth-century philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard. It is the magnum opus of respected European medievalist Lodewijk Jozef (Louk) Engels, pursued over more than 40 years, and was close to completion upon his death in 2017. From that time, a team of dedicated scholars at Brepols under the leadership of Christine Vande Veire worked together to finalize Engels’ manuscript as it existed in both hand-written and electronic forms and to bring the edition to light in the esteemed Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaeualis series.

Abelard’s sermon collection traditionally contains 34 sermons, though Engels here includes a 35th, which comprises a text he had edited earlier in his career and which has generally been read as a polemic by Abelard against the Cistercians. [1] The collection of Sermons as a whole appears to have been sent to Heloise and the nuns of the Paraclete for their edification. However, while some of the sermons seem to have been specifically written for the nuns, as they open with an address to ancillae Christi and carissimae, it is also clear that some were originally written for monks, as they open with an address to fratres.

The challenge for Engels in producing this edition was that there are no extant manuscript witnesses to the collection as a whole, meaning that he had largely to rely on previous editions. The editio princeps of Abelard’s works was published in Paris in 1616 (attributed to François D’Amboise and André Duchesne), and here the Sermons are claimed to have been edited from a manuscript of the Sorbonne now lost. Through the twentieth century, the authoritative editions of the Sermons were those of Victor Cousin in Vol. 1 of his Petri Abaelardi opera (Paris, 1849) and J.-P. Migne in Vol. 178 of the Patrologia Latina (Paris, 1855), both of which were based on the editio princeps with some corrections and additional manuscript readings.

Seven individual sermons (Sermones II, IV, XIV, XXV, XXX, XXXII, and XXXIV) are extant in three manuscripts (Sermones II and IV each appear in two manuscripts), and I will discuss Engels’ treatment of these manuscript witnesses below. In 2002, Paola De Santis produced a critical edition of six of these sermons [2] (she did not edit Sermo XXX, which had already been edited separately by Aldo Granata in 1973 [3]), and I will compare her edition with that of Engels below.

Engels provides a highly detailed Introduction to his edition, outlining the known witnesses, the likely transmission of the text, and his ratio edendi. As would be expected of a scholar of Engels’ standing and experience, these are full, precise, and carefully argued. For the sake of providing a critical voice, however, I would like to draw attention to three aspects of the edition, its construction, and its rationale that raise some concerns.

Engels claims that he intends “to re-establish the original text to the greatest extent possible” (p. xi), but it must be remembered that Abelard’s texts were very frequently unfinished (the edition by John Marenbon and Giovanni Orlandi of Abelard’s Collationes provides a cogent analysis of this [4]) and often existed from the earliest times in a range of recensions (as my own edition of Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium explores). De Santis suggested in her edition that some of the sermons may have existed in both shorter and longer versions, depending on which monastic community they were addressed to on a given occasion, and Engels himself notes that “It is certain that a number of these sermons were preached on previous occasions before being included in the collection” (p. xiii). This means that there may be no “original” text of some of the Sermons to be recovered, so, as I outline below, this will impact the way that variant readings can and should be used to construct the edition.

Wim Verbaal, one of the editors who completed the edition from Engels’ draft, notes in his Preface to this volume that Engels sometimes relied for readings “on his own acquaintance with Abelard’s works and style and on a sense of intuition” (x). Such dependence on familiarity with an author’s style always needs to be leavened with a self-reflexive awareness of the factors that might motivate one’s own editorial choices, and I point out below how an editorial emendation, although based on an encyclopedic knowledge of Medieval Latin constructions, can produce a reading that runs counter to Abelard’s own thought.

I was concerned by the critical tone of Engels’ analysis of De Santis’ edition, and I found his observation that “De Santis occasionally buttressed her hypothesis inventively” (lviii) to be coded for gender. Engels claims that De Santis’ conjectures regarding the textual transmission of the Sermons convey “a rather chaotic image of Abelard’s way of working” (lix) and “a rather mysterious picture of Abelard’s way of working” (lxiv), but most editors of Abelard’s texts agree that he was not an author who worked carefully, consistently, and methodically. Engels ends with the grudging admission that “Notwithstanding this, in my opinion, incorrect reconstruction of the textual genesis of the collection, De Santis’ edition offers a considerable number of improvements,” though he immediately undercuts this by noting that “this is offset by a relatively large number of shortcomings” (lxv). This criticism would be more cogent were Engels’ readings of De Santis’ edition not themselves incorrect in a number of places, as I point out below.

To evaluate Engels’ edition, I will examine his text and apparatus criticus for the opening of Sermo I (In annuntiatione Beati Virginis Marie) and Sermo II (In natali Domini). Sermo I is not extant in manuscript and is known only through the editio princeps and the nineteenth-century editions of Cousin and Migne. Here I will evaluate the emendations Engels has made according to his own editorial discretion.

Sermo I:

- Lines 24-25 (p. 7): Engels has altered the reading of singulorum in Et quia non singulorum hominum sed eorum tantum qui... to simul omnium. However, the original non singulorum hominum (“not of every single person”) falls into natural contrast with sed eorum tantum qui (“but only of those who...”), while simul seems to complicate the meaning and disrupt the syntactic symmetry. I see no persuasive reason for this change.

- Lines 46-47 (p. 7): Engels has emended mulieres in non solum permanentes uirgines uerum etiam facte mulieres to martyres (“not only remaining virgins but even become women / martyrs”). In this case we can see how uirgines might have naturally led the scribe’s or editor’s mind to mulieres, although the sense is lacking. Here Engels’ emendation makes sense in terms of Abelard pointing out that women who choose to follow the Lamb can not only remain virgins but even become martyrs.

- Line 47 (p. 7): Engels has emended sponsa in tam in sponsa, quam in uirgine to sponso. This seems appropriate as the tam...quam structure suggests a comparative construction, and sponso and uirgine offer a binary contrast referring to Joseph and Mary who are the focus of this sermon. The accuracy of the emendation is confirmed by the first words of the next sentence which refer specifically to Joseph: De sponso quidem...

- Line 56 (p. 8): Engels has emended the opening of the sentence from Qui to Quapropter, but the change seems unnecessary. Qui picks up eum Ioseph nominari at the end of the previous sentence, and it is typical Medieval Latin usage to continue the discussion of a person mentioned in one sentence (here, Joseph) by beginning the next one Qui (“Who...”). On the other hand, Engels’ emendation Quapropter (“Wherefore”) introduces a new sense of causality that does not seem to be warranted here.

- Lines 112-113 (p. 10): Engels has added “<carnis>” to curam. This is a good example of why an emendation based on an editor’s sense of a best reading can be so dangerous. Although carnis is Engels’ own addition, his apparatus reads: “carnis] om. Z cm,” which is not an accurate reflection of his exemplars. The existing editions did not omit the word carnis; it simply was not a part of their text. More concerning, carnis curam is specifically not an Abelardian usage. Engels has added carnis to curam on the basis that this is an established collocation: it is found, for example, in the writings of Gregory the Great, Bede, and Hrabanus Maurus, and seems to have been a favourite of twelfth-century authors contemporary with Abelard, such as Rupert of Deutz, William of St Thierry, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St Victor, and Aelred of Rievaulx. However, the only time it appears in Abelard’s writings is in his Commentary on Romans (IV. 13, verse 14) where he actually argues against the concept of carnis cura in favour of Paul’s cura in desideriis, contending that we must have the care of our flesh, as far as maintaining our life goes, but avoid superfluities: “Non ergo ait simpliciter CARNIS curam ne habueritis, sed in desideriis, hoc est in uoluptatibus potius quam in necessitatibus.” [5]

Sermo II:

Sermo II exists in two medieval manuscripts (Colmar [C], s. XII; Einsiedeln [E], s. XIIex) and the recent edition by De Santis, so here I will compare Engels’ edition against these exemplars.

- Line 5 (p. 18): nuntiauerunt: Engels notes that previous editions had nuntiarunt, but not that he has sourced nuntiauerunt from MS C (I learnt this only from reading De Santis’ apparatus). Engels misrepresents De Santis’ reading as nuntiarunt when it is actually nunciarunt; I would also question his preference for the pluperfect over the perfect here, when the verb falls between the present participles exultantes and dicentes.

- Line 7 (p. 18): specialiter: Engels notes that De Santis reads spiritualiter here, but this is incorrect. De Santis reads spiritaliter but notes spiritualiter as a variant of C in her apparatus.

- Line 8 (p. 18): Deus: Engels adds this lemma from C, but his apparatus reads “Deus] om. Z cm sa.” This raises the question of whether it is more accurate to say that all these witnesses omit the word, or rather that MS C adds it. I would argue that it is misleading for Engels to suggest that De Santis omits this reading, since she notes it in her apparatus as an addition of C.

- Line 22 (p. 19): ut a nobis edisseri queat: Engels breaks down the variants of this clause into individual words instead of providing variants of the entire clause as De Santis does. Thus he gives variant readings for ut (“quod”) and edisseri (“commemorari”), but we are left without an overall picture of the alternatives. By contrast, De Santis notes in her apparatus: “ut a nobis commemorari queat A; quod a nobis edisseri queat E; a nobis commemorari queat em. Co.” This gives a more holistic picture of the alternatives and informs us of where her editorial choice has arisen (the original 1616 edition of Abelard’s works, A). By contrast, we cannot know from Engels’ text that his choice of edisseri is the reading of E alone (information which I gleaned from De Santis’ apparatus).

- Line 23 (p. 19): Sic et Christus, rex uniuersorum: Engels notes that uniuersorum appears in C as unius horum, but De Santis gives C’s reading as unus horum, and this discrepancy is not noted or resolved by Engels. De Santis also notes that C omits the et in Sic et Christus, but this is not noted by Engels. A reader without access to MS C cannot know which of the two editions represents the manuscript more accurately.

In relation to Engels’ use of the manuscript variants, I would argue that an edition needs to be an edition of something. It cannot simply be a pastiche of all available readings. We know that Engels is not producing an edition of MSS C or E, as these are sometimes listed as variants in the apparatus, but he also includes readings from them in his edition in a way that is not marked. Indeed, it is concerning that Engels so often includes readings from C in his text, when his apparatus reveals that many of its variants are nonsense. If a manuscript is not fundamentally trustworthy, should it be used to supply readings to the edition proper?

The great gift of Engels’ edition of the complete sermon collection of Abelard is that it will allow Abelard’s Sermons to become more widely known. The introductory letter alone, no more than 17 lines in this edition, is a masterpiece of Abelard’s rhetorical skill as he expresses his concern for the nuns of the Paraclete which he helped establish, and farewells Heloise by acknowledging their one-time connection in the world but hoping that their new spiritual partnership will be the more fruitful. Katherine Allen Smith has noted that a full critical edition of the Sermons will allow scholars to speak to the “emerging interest in the collaboration between male and female monastics during the reform movements of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a trend exemplified by the productive collaboration of Abelard and Heloise at the Paraclete.” [6]

It is also worth pausing at this moment to reflect upon the recent passing of a great generation of Abelard scholars, including Louk Engels (1932-2017), Peter Dronke (1934-2020), Giles Constable (1929-2021), and David Luscombe (1938-2021), and the legacy with which they have endowed us. But in commemorating their work I would also urge us to look towards a regeneration of and a greater diversity in Abelardian studies. So few women have become (or been permitted to become) serious names in Abelardian studies--what contributions might they make? How will scholars of colour reinterpret Abelard for the twenty-first century? It may perhaps seem premature to urge a move forward at a time of loss, but I think we know, between the poles of veneration of one’s former teachers and a move towards renewal and innovation, which path Abelard would have taken.



1. L. J. Engels, “Adtendite a falsis prophetis (Ms. Colmar 128, ff. 152v/153v). Un texte de Pierre Abélard contre les Cisterciens retrouvé?” in Corona gratiarum: Miscellanea patristica, historica et liturgica, 2 vols (Bruges: F.T. de Vries, 1975), vol. 2, 195-228.

2. Paola De Santis, I sermoni di Abelardo per le monache del Paracleto (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2002).

3. Aldo Granata, “La dottrina dell’elemosina del sermone ‘Pro sanctimonialibus de Paraclito’ di Abelardo,” Aevum, 47 (1975), 32-59 (edition at 54-59).

4. Peter Abelard, Collationes, ed. and trans. John Marenbon and Giovanni Orlandi (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), Introduction, “VIII: Are the Collationes Unfinished?,” lxxxvi-lxxxvii.

5. Petri Abaelardi Commentaria in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos, ed. Eligius M. Buytaert, CCCM 11 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1969), 296, lines 343-345.

6. Katherine Allen Smith, review of De Santis, I sermoni, Journal of Medieval Latin, 14 (2004), 209-212, at 212.