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23.01.07 Barney (trans.), Peter the Chanter, The Abel Distinctions

23.01.07 Barney (trans.), Peter the Chanter, The Abel Distinctions

Capping his monumental edition Petri Cantoris: Distinctiones Abel, which made the text of the “Abel Distinctions” by Peter the Chanter (d. 1197) available to Latinate scholars for the first time (in Corpus Christianorum volumes 288 and 288A), Stephen Barney has gifted students, teachers, and scholars alike with an accessible English translation of this ground breaking, influential, and often delightful twelfth-century reference work. The work’s basic statistics suggest its stature and influence: it consists of 1684 articles and survives in 88 manuscripts. But these bare facts only begin to indicate the erudition, devotion, and labor that first editing and then translating the work has entailed. For this reason, this reviewer hopes only to describe The Abel Distinctions in a way that will draw readers to explore its wonders.

First, then: what are the work’s titular “distinctions”? A genre unto itself, a distinction “distinguishes” the various senses of a key biblical term. As Barney explains, the Chanter’s collection of distinctions is “the first, and is perhaps the very first, full and independent example of the genre” (10) and definitely the first such collection to be alphabetically ordered. Its opening distinction is thus “Abel”--whence the work’s title--which may serve as an example of the genre.

“Abel is said to be “the beginning of the Church” (Abel dicitur

principium ecclesie)

a. Because of his innocence. Christ bears witness to his

innocence, saying: From the blood of Abel the just (Matth. 23,


b. Because of his martyrdom, for he was the first to undergo

martyrdom. Whence: The Lamb, which was slain from the

beginning of the world (Apoc. 13, 8), and the Church is said to

have been founded on the blood of martyrs.

c. Because of his virginity, for he was a virgin, prefiguring the

Lamb without blemish (Ex. 12, 5). Whence ‘Abel’ is interpreted

as ‘nothing from this’, because he did not produce his seed

upon the earth (cf. Gen. 4, 25).”

Manuscript witnesses to The Abel Distinctions typically visualize the genre’s definitive branching structure in its mise en page. Each distinction’s heading--here, “Abel is said to be ‘the beginning of the Church’”--appears on the left side of the page, from which red-ink “rays” (17) extend to each of the term’s distinguished meanings. In his introduction, Barney helpfully includes a color plate of the first page of work in Reims, Bibliothèque municipale [Carnegie], MS 508 (f. 4r), showing “distinctive” page layout.

The opening distinction on Abel exemplifies the genre well enough, but a look at the distinctions for any one of its sub-terms will bring into focus the “prime use” (10) of The Abel Distinctions: that is, as a treasure trove for teaching and sermon writing. Innocence might be the topic for a sermon on the Feast of the Innocents, for instance, for which the Chanter provides three entries, while martyrdom and virginity, two topics with broad applicability, are represented in six and four articles respectively. Across these entries, a medieval sermon writer would have found the Chanter providing various kinds of information, drawing from numerous sources in addition to the Bible, and regularly deviating from the distinction form. Sometimes the very ordering of a distinguished term appears to be informative: in this way, the Chanter’s three kinds of innocence--“Of speech,” “Of thought,” “Of works” (321)--suggest a hierarchy. Contrastingly, the information supplied in the first entry on martyrdom is lexicographic, noting that the word “martires” is the Greek equivalent of Latin “witness” [testes] (385). The first entry on innocence together with those on virginity display the Chanter’s use of extra-biblical sources: in these entries he quotes Peter Lombard, Isidore of Seville, Gratian, and the Liber Scintillarum by “Defensor.” At the same time, the eight sub-terms of the distinction “Martyrs are called ‘The Hillock of Testimony’” exhibit the extensibility of the distinction genre while the entry “There are two kinds of Martyrdom,” which consists of two discursive paragraphs, shows the Chanter departing from the form altogether. Were a sermon writer to find any of these entries insufficient for his needs, each sub-term leads on to at least one further entry: there are entries on speech, thought, and works, for instance, which would supply a writer with more ideas for his sermon on innocence. In this way, The Abel Distinctions presents a veritable garden of forking paths, a choose-your-own-adventure reference work. No wonder, then, that a number of copies show evidence of having been “chained” in place, making them available, as Barney notes, “for consultation...but resistant to private borrowing or theft” (20).

Much to her advantage, a twentieth-first-century scholar may have her very own copy of The Abel Distinctions, either “between boards” or electronically, and her “adventure” may extend beyond Chanter’s text to Barney’s multi-faceted apparatus. Because the work’s entries are ordered alphabetically according to their Latin headings, its General Index may be a frequent starting point. Seeking there for entries on “speech,” “thought,” and “works,” for instance, a reader will be directed to page numbers among the Ds, the Cs, and the Os respectively for entries “A Human Speaks” (Dicit homo), “Thought is” (Cogitatio est), and “Works of mercy” (Opera misericordie). In the case of this last item, a reader will encounter a feature of the Chanter’s textual apparatus: a cross reference to a main article, here to one on mercy. Since Barney numbers all of the entries within a given letter, it is easy to flip back to this particular article, number M100. Researchers looking for articles quoting specific biblical passages or medieval authors will be grateful for two additional indices, of biblical citations and of sources. Footnotes on most pages provide various kinds of additional information, which often directs one onward to the work’s ample bibliography. Barney’s practice in citing the Chanter’s medieval sources is particularly generous. For the quotation in a distinction on virginity (V44), “Virginity fills heaven, as marriage the earth” (636), for instance, Barney cites the Chanter’s source in Gratian’s Decretals first, and then Gratian’s source in Jerome’s Against Jovinianus, thus sketching for a reader the trail of a Christian writer’s work from late antiquity to the Chanter’s milieu in late twelfth-century Paris.

One more element of each page of The Abel Distinctions invites readers to venture into Barney’s edition of the Latin text. In addition to foot-of-the-page page numbers, each page features marginal page numbers that indicate the location of the same material in the Latin edition. These numbers are key for anyone interested in traveling further into the web of Peter’s sources, for as Barney explains in his introduction to the translation, here he has indicated sources only for material that is explicitly framed as being quoted, which framing may take the form of a phrase like “And of this is said” (636), which introduces the quotation on virginity cited above (28). Accepting these marginal page numbers’ invitations is bound to be rewarding since, as Barney notes, there are “roughly 2500 borrowed passages, averaging about four per page of the Latin text,” the result of Peter’s access to three-hundred-some individual works written by an assembly of a hundred-some Christian authors (24). The indices and further appurtenances of the Latin edition are accordingly more numerous and voluminous, but all such matters are beyond the scope of this review.

While the “prime use” today of The Abel Distinctions may be for research, it would serve wonderfully for teaching as well. Many distinctions would be useful for contextualizing works of medieval literature, including those on the eight ages of the world (E74), the six ages of a human life (E75), and the principle vices (V26) and virtues (V47), along with distinctions devoted to individual instances of the same. Again, there are distinctions that would illuminate specific literary episodes: for instance, the distinction on bigamy (B20) and one discussing the Samaritan woman at the well (V38) for a class session on Chaucer’s Prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale. Or dive into the work at random: ultimately, any distinction would do for giving students a taste of the generous and generative “medieval” habit of mind they all adduce. Having explored The Abel Distinctions, students could even be invited to write their own, using key terms in works under study in the class.

Several distinctions concern wisdom and knowing, concerns of all readers of The Abel Distinctions. I conclude with the Chanter’s conclusion for a distinction on wishing to know (S37): wishing to know “in order to know, is pride; in order that we may be known to know, is vainglory; in order to make money, is simony; in order to improve ourselves, is prudence; in order to improve others, is charity” (570).