Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.03.24

Wilhelm Geerlings, Christian Schulze, Der Kommentar in Antike und Mittelalter. Beitrage zu seiner Erforschung. Clavis Commentariorum Antiquitatis et Medii Aevi, 2.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. 371.  ISBN 90-04-12528-0.  EUR 116.00.  

Reviewed by Mieczyslaw Mejor, Institute for Literary Research, PASc, Warsaw (
Word count: 1935 words

This book appears as Volume 2 of the new series Clavis commentariorum antiquitatis et medii aevi under the general editorship of Wilhelm Geerlings of Ruhr-Universität Bochum. The series is scheduled to encompass the Clavis commentariorum veteris et novi testamenti and a corpus of medical commentaries. As the first volume in the whole series there appeared the book by Sybille Ihm, Clavis commentariorum der antiken medizinischen Texte.1

Geerlings' book comprises sixteen articles, the majority of which are the outcome of six years of functioning of his Graduirtenkolleg devoted to the theme Commentaries in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The main objective of this interdisciplinary team was to bring out of obscurity the forgotten literary genre of the commentary and to resolve many, as yet unanswered, questions.2 The volume brings forth a selection of works which came into being within this project, articles written by scholars representing various disciplines (Greek and Latin philology, history of law, medicine, philosophy, Oriental studies). A sequel to this book encompasses the works which due to various reasons could not be published in this volume (among others a paper by Heinrich von Staden on the Hellenistic commentaries to Hippokrates).3 The book is accompanied by a set of meticulous indices of quoted papyri and manuscripts, and of the 'loci' taken from Antique authors; an index of proper names, and a subject index.

The volume opens with the article by W. Geerlings "Die lateinisch-patristischen Kommentare", the subject and the chronological scope of which is related to the two subsequent texts by Hildegung Müller and Karla Pollmann; because the article by Geerlings unfolds a program of sorts for the whole enterprise, I shall devote more attention to it. The commentary by Herakleos to St. John's Gospel (beginning of 2nd century) is the earliest known Christian biblical commentary. According to Geerlings, there are c. 170 extant Christian commentaries, which encompass sermons (around one third of the total number), scholia and literary commentaries. Geerlings, following Marrou, considers sermons also a form of a commentary, substantiating this with the goal of sermons -- explaining, and in this case, laying out of the sense of the Scripture while providing practical teachings for the faithful. It is perhaps worth noticing here, that Geerlings' general remarks, stating that commentaries-sermons were delivered by word of mouth first and then written down [p. 3], as well as treating Marcus Aurelius' Ad se ipsum as a handbook, an enchiridion, are both debatable. The former opinion is tenable nevertheless, in the case of Enarrationes in Psalmos, because recent works on the edition of this text demonstrated its original instructive character (cf. the article by H. Müller). Geerlings analyses the methods applied by St. Augustine in the Enarrationes. Methodologically, in the lexical sphere, the Christian explaining and teaching of the sense of Scripture did not differ from the methods used by the grammatici in their reading of the poets. Augustine utilises chiefly the scholia method, explaining individual words verse after verse. One finds no lengthy prologues, characteristic in later commentaries, in which the commentators would point out their goal and methods. Geerlings considers the prologue to the so-called Ambrosiaster commentary as exemplary for Christian literature. Augustine, as a rule, would not venture into discussing the title of a text to establish its genre or authenticity. The form of the prologue is also seldom used by him, whereas the indication of the theme from a psalm, which provides the general motive, is more frequently found. As Geerlings correctly emphasises, this is to be linked with the homiletic character of the commentary. In medieval preaching this feature would become a rule of constructing sermons. Augustine was also reluctant, usually in his "heathen" commentaries, to call upon the examples of former authors; and, if he quoted the words of somebody else, he would never provide more precise clues as to their origin. Moreover, his explanatory remarks to the psalms have no proper endings; each entity ends with a short instruction or a sentence emphasising some special point. Next Geerlings moves on to the commentary practices of Augustine discussed against the background of the model scheme used by the grammarians: lectio, emendatio, explanatio, iudicium. His important conclusion is that the methods employed by Hieronymus, Ambrosiaster, Marius Victorinus, and Augustine are at the same time both different and similar because all the aforementioned commentators drew upon the rules worked out by the grammarians. Geerlings considers the problem of the reception of biblical texts by the commentators, or, more precisely, of their choice of individual fragments, a separate problem. He believes (p. 11), that only certain texts were commented on and that this is most probably related to the theological and pastoral problems of the times. The articles conclude with the remark that there is need to view the history of the exegesis from a new perspective, not only as the history of the methods of commenting on the Scripture but also as the history of changing paradigms of choice of texts to be elaborated in relation to the early Christian dogmatics.

Hildegard Müller takes Geerlings' remarks further and embarks upon a detailed philological analysis of several fragments of the Ennarrationes to exemplify the origin, construction and character of this commentary. Among other things, she makes an important statement that the whole work is practically a conglomerate of separate analyses of individual fragments of the psalms, which do not form a closer entity other than by secondary means, through lemmata. This type of construction seems, in most cases, to be a characteristic feature of the patristic commentary (commentarius currens) as a literary genre (p. 17).

Karla Pollmann discusses the technicalities of commenting and of the theological exegesis employed by Tyconius in the Liber regularum and in the Expositiones in Apocalypsim. Pollmann also assembles a questionnaire that is very useful for the study of commentaries: 1. historical context; 2. intention, or the so called "Sitz im Leben"; 3. contents, i.e. what or how much is commented on; 4. form, or the literary genre of the commentary; 5. method of commenting (frequently linked with the form); 6. reception. A minor criticism is that the statement on Tyconius quoted in Ennarrationes in Apocalypsim by Ambrosius Autpertus is taken from a third party, not the original source -- CCCM 27A, ed. R. Weber, Turnhout 1975, lib. 7, cap. 15 -- and Autpertus is dated to the sixth not the eighth century (pp. 35-6, n. 12).

The article by Wolfgang Luppe, "Scholia, hypomnemata, und hypotheseis zu griechischen Dramen auf Papyri", brings forth a number of interesting remarks on different forms of ancient commentaries on Attic comedy and tragedy. In most cases our knowledge of the form of the commentaries is distorted by many centuries of manuscript tradition, but thanks to the papyri we are able to get a glimpse of the technique and contents of the original commentaries. Luppe confirms that the scholia (like the hypomnemata) we find in the papyri, as a rule, are not the notes by the readers but explanations taken from other commentaries. This is why the scholia of the Antiquity are something else then the ones from the Middle Ages, and their authors should not be equated with the medieval "scholiastae". The hypotheseis, i.e. short summaries of plays, presenting the main characters and mythological stories, were a specific form of commentary. Thus, they are not what the modern reader would call didascalia. These notes are present in the medieval manuscript tradition (Euripides), and on papyri. They come from the same source, which -- according to Luppe -- was the work of Diakaiarchus, a disciple of Aristotle. S. Trojahn's book on papyri commentaries on Old Attic Comedy4 is in full harmony with Luppe's article.

In the next article Otto Zwierlein discusses the methods of interpretation of the texts used by antique and medieval readers-exegetes. This article was published earlier and is reprinted here although it doesn't concern commentaries directly; but it provides an excellent background to the discussion of commentaries since any interpretation of a text is a form of commenting on it.5

The article by Ulrich Schindel demonstrates the close relations between the commentary of the type "on the literary text" and the handbooks of the ars grammatica kind. The author's observations are based on the analysis of cited sources of the anonymous handbook of rhetoric, the so called Anonymus Ecksteinii, and the De vitiis by Isidorus Iunior.

The article by Lucie Dolezalova "The Cena Cypriani or the Game of Endless Possibilities" is only marginally connected with the subject of the book. The author presents an interesting proposition of understanding this mysterious text as a game -- "the game theory".

A whole section of the volume is devoted to the tradition of commenting in non-Christian cultures. It encompasses the articles by Gilles Corival "Exégèse juive et exégèse chrétienne", Dagmar Boerner-Klien on rabbinical commentaries on Genesis 6,2-7, and Elisabeth Hollender on Hebrew commentaries to Hebrew liturgical poetry (Pijjut).

Ilsetraut Hadot presents the main characteristic features of the antique commentary on philosophical works. Similarly, Cristina D'Ancona Costa treats the methods of commenting on Aristotle in the light of late antique and Arabic commentators.

The group of articles concerning the typology of antique medical commentaries is opened by Gotthard Strohmaier's text on Galen as the commentator on Greek and Arabic manuscripts of Hippokrates and Klaus-Dietrich Fischer's remarks on the two Latin pseudo-Salernitan commentaries to the Aphorisms of Hippokrates. Sybille Ihm, in her paper "Untersuchungen zu einer Typologisierung medizinischer Kommentare", attempts to provide a typology of the antique medical commentary (pp. 315-33).

The last article in the volume, by Christian Schulze, "Das Bild als Kommentar. Zur Problematik von Pflanzendarstellungen in spätantiken und mittelalterlichen Handschriften", makes a series of very interesting remarks related to the problems of iconographical representation of plants in late antique and medieval manuscripts (pp. 335-53). As has already been pointed out by K. Weitzmann, it is impossible to comprehend certain kinds of texts, especially herbals, without illustrations.6

The specificity of the genre of literary commentary, when its characteristic features and linguistic form are only dimly outlined, is decided mainly by its function. Perhaps, to avoid the possibility of misunderstandings due to poorly defined terminology, given such diversity of the forms of text commentaries, one should rather talk of "commenting literature" instead of "commentaries", which encompasses all the forms of explications and commentary: scholia, hypomnemata, hypotheseis, Christian ennarrationes (commentarius currens), sermons, accessus ad auctores and proper commentaries, i.e. works of determined structure, with a characteristic prologue, an introduction to the methodology of studying-commenting and the subject-matter of the commented text (isagoge).

In future studies of the commentary as a literary genre it would perhaps be worth the effort to take a closer look at the relationships between commenting and isagogical literatures.7 In the higher schools of Late Antiquity the study of the philosophical (and medical) texts was based on commenting on them with the assistance of a master. But the commenting and interpreting would always begin by introducing the author, his work and the general matter of the study. These introductions (prolegomena) written by masters were composed in accord with a methodological scheme that consisted of a set of particular questions -- the schemata isagogica. The medieval commentaries in their variety (commentaria, commenta, enarrationes, expositiones, quaestiones, apparatus, postilla, etc.) generally adhere to the scheme devised by their ancient predecessors. Hence the variety of forms of the genre of the literary commentary needs further study. I am convinced that the volume edited by W. Geerlings and Ch. Schulze is an important step towards a future monograph on this genre.

[[For another review of this book, by Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, please see BMCR 2004.03.46.]]


1.   Leiden: Brill 2002, ISBN 90-04-12334-2.
2.   Cf. Glenn Most, Commentaries - Kommentare, cf. Review BMCR 2000.05.19.
3.   From BMCR 2004.01.01: Geerlings, Wilhelm and Christian Schulze (edd.), Der Kommentar in Antike und Mittelalter, Bd. 2. Neue Beiträge zu seiner Eforschung. Leiden: Brill, 2003. Pp. 272; illustr. 40. ISBN 90-04-13562-6.
4.   Cf. Review BMCR 2003.08.24.
5.   Cf. Funke, Riethmueller, Zwierlein, "Interpretation", Abhandlungen der Akademie Mainz, 1998, Nr 6, p. 31-53.
6.   Cf. K. Weitzmann, Illustrations in Roll and Codex, Princeton 1970, p. 71
7.   Cf. M. Plezia, De commentariis isagogicis, Krakow 1949, and the modern study by J. Mansfeld, Prolegomena. Questions to be settled before the Study of an Autor, or a Text, Leyden 1994 (Philosophia Antiqua, 61).

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