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23.03.22 Cermanová/Žůrek (eds.), Books of Knowledge in Late Medieval Europe

23.03.22 Cermanová/Žůrek (eds.), Books of Knowledge in Late Medieval Europe

The present volume seems like a close sibling to another 2021 Brepols publication recently reviewed in The Medieval Review entitled Studying the Arts in Late Medieval Bohemia: Production, Reception and Transmission of Knowledge, although the two books appear in different series. Some authors appear in both volumes, both are associated with the Institute of Philosophy at the Czech Academy of the Sciences, and both make valuable contributions to intellectual history and our understanding of how knowledge circulated in medieval Bohemia.

Whereas Studying the Arts focuses on the University of Prague, Books of Knowledge places its emphasis on the transmission of knowledge via text more broadly, both within and outside of university settings. The editors and authors propose the term “book of knowledge” to refer to widely disseminated, clearly organized, practically oriented texts designed to impart knowledge to non-specialist readers. As the editors emphasize, “books of knowledge” as a term does not define a genre, but spans across genres, and indeed texts from a variety of genres are claimed for this new category, including bestiaries, herbals, theological and doctrinal compendia, chronologies and historical texts, preaching aids, and even the famed Secretum secretorum.

The editors note in the introduction that the concept of a book of knowledge encompasses “content, function, authorial intent, but also user reception” (3). The authors of the volume place varying emphasis on each of these criteria in their own individual contributions. Steven J. Williams, who spends more time than most of the authors wrestling with the term, emphasizes content in his argument that the Secretum secretorum should be more properly termed a “book of knowledge” rather than an “encyclopedia,” a term that Williams argues is in any case anachronistic. He feels comfortable applying the term “book of knowledge” to texts that transmit knowledge about the natural world and certain types of religious texts such as summae, but prefers to exclude texts such as penitentials, confessor’s manuals, and monastic rules. Lucie Doležalová feels a similar discomfort about including the De tribus punctis christianae religionis by Thomas Hibernicus within the category. According to Doležalová, the text, which Archbishop Ernest of Pardubice appended to his synodal statutes of 1349, transmitted doctrine to be accepted rather than shared wisdom. Williams’ and Doležalová’s hesitancy to include normative and doctrinal texts in the category inevitably raises several questions: What is knowledge? Who gets to decide? What is the relationship between knowledge and power? How one answers these questions will inevitably affect the types of texts that one is willing to assign to this category. The status of knowledge as an independent category of analysis similarly occupied Paolino Veneto, whose Chronologia Magna is the subject of an interesting study by Nadine Holzmeier. Paolino organized world history visually by placing people and events into chronological order in twenty-eight columns, only three of which run throughout the text, the linea regularis, which depicts secular rulers, the linea Christi, which culminates in the line of the popes, and the linea doctorum et scriptorum, which depicts scholars and thinkers as wide-ranging as Socrates, Sappho, Galen, Pericles, Cicero, and Augustine. Somewhat surprisingly, the line is not traced back to Christ or biblical patriarchs; for Paolino, scholarship of all kinds was “an independent aspect in structuring the history of the world” (212).

One advantage of using the category “book of knowledge” to think about a text rather than its genre is that it helps one to avoid presupposing how a particular text was used or what kind of knowledge in it was valued. It also encourages one to be open to the idea that the uses of a text could and did shift over time. Indeed, many of the authors in this volume emphasize transmission and reception and pay close attention to what texts were bound with, the nature of accompanying marginal commentary, and what happened when the text was adapted into Old Czech. For example, one might not initially think of Jacobus de Cessolis’ Liber de moribus as a “book of knowledge.” Jacobus gives an allegorical interpretation of each piece in the game of chess to explain his vision for how society should function, but assumes the reader already knows how to play the game. Anyone looking to this text for knowledge about how to play chess would be sorely disappointed. However, Václav Žůrek uses marginal notations and the text’s transmission history to argue that in Czech lands the Liber was most often valued as a source for basic knowledge of classical history, not as a primer on how to play the game itself. This kind of emphasis on reception and use can lead to some interesting results. Pavel Blažek and Barbora Řezníčková use transmission history to show that the Pseudo-Bernardine Epistola de cura rei familiaris, a text in epistolary formatcontaining moral and practical advice for lay householders, most often served as a “gap filler” in larger manuscripts used by priests and religious but was also sometimes used in the study of Latin at the pre-university level. Gleb Schmidt uses a similar method to show that texts could acquire the status of a “book of knowledge” later in life. Whereas early manuscript copies of Honorius Augustodunensis’ Elucidarium suggest the text was most often read contemplatively, in its entirety, in a monastic environment, later copies of the text acquired a reference apparatus, indices, titles, and lists of chapters, making the text more useful in a professional context. These kinds of finding aids were not always appreciated, however. Dana Stehlíková describes a case in which the adapters of a text removed such practical finding aids. Toward the end of the fourteenth century, Christian of Prachatice authored his Herbarium by condensing and adapting academic medical knowledge for a wider audience. He developed a more robust system of syllabic ordering for the entries and used an elaborate system of cross-references for synonyms. However, fifteenth-century users who excerpted, adapted, and translated the text into Old Czech dropped both.

Even considerations about what kind of knowledge a text was transmitting could change depending on context. Jaroslav Svátek, focusing on the Czech versions of the Elucidarium, shows that whereas early Latin copies were most often surrounded by other theological texts or preaching manuals, late medieval Czech versions were more often accompanied by geographical or historical texts.Baudouin van den Abeele’s study of the Physiologus Theobaldi, a greatly condensed and rhymed version of thePhysiologus, shows that a text could be adapted to entirely different uses than the intent of the original author. By analyzing both already known manuscript copies and an astounding 123 new manuscript witnesses, van den Abeele has discovered that the text was frequently found in collections of school texts, which suggests that this compact bestiary was very often used in teaching in the fifteenth century.

Although the majority of the chapters do not focus on the activities of university faculty, the university context is not entirely ignored in the volume. Pavlína Cermanová uses manuscripts containing commentaries on the health-science portions of the Secretum secretorum to argue that they may have been taught at university though not as part of the regular curriculum. Lukáš Lička uses the example of Reimbotus de Castro’s notes from lectures about optics heard at the University of Paris to show that this discipline was studied, at least in part, for its applications to astronomy. The latter discussion is somewhat of an outlier in the volume in that it focuses on the study of optics in Paris and the “books of knowledge” under study--Reimbot’s own notes and redactions--had an audience of one, himself.

Vojtêch Bažant also focuses on a single individual, in this case Petr Přespole, a burgher and scribe from Kutná Hora, who copied Martin of Opava’s Chronicon Pontificum et imperatorum for himself in the mid-fifteenth century. This and other texts suggest that Petr, who was possibly an Utraquist, had an interest in ecclesiastical history. Conversely, Julia Burkhardt uses an algorithm to identify subgroups within the transmission history of Thomas of Cantimpre’s Book of Bees that reveal possible institutional and regional networks within which books were exchanged.

The term “book of knowledge” clearly has potential as an analytical category though its breadth could be seen as both a strength and a weakness. More work needs to be done to refine the concept, though this volume makes a great contribution to that effort. Although I would have liked to see some of the authors do more to ground their analyses in the context of wider trends in late medieval book production, taken as a whole the collection offers several fascinating examples of what is to be gained by paying close attention to how texts circulated (including patterns in what they were bound with) as well as the complex relationship between a text, the manuscript in which it was found, and its users.