BMCR 1993.01.02

Patristic scholarship: the edition of St. Jerome

, , Patristic scholarship: the edition of St. Jerome. The Collected Works of Erasmus 61. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. 293 pages. ISBN 1442678305. $85.00.

This volume is the first to appear in the section on patristic scholarship in the magisterial and justly praised edition of the Collected Works of Erasmus (see Paul Pascal’s recent review and survey in BMCR 3.5, pp. 380-83). For Erasmus, St. Jerome represented the highest ideals of Christian scholarship, and throughout his life Erasmus identified himself and his work with that of the most scholarly of the Fathers. Consequently, Erasmus’s work on the first collected edition of Jerome is of special interest to students of Erasmus. This volume, produced by the collaborative efforts of James F. Brady and John C. Olin, is an introduction and representative sample of the edition that Erasmus guided into print.

Brady and Olin present Erasmus’s contributions to the edition: his often neglected biography of Jerome, his dedicatory letter to Archbishop William Warham, his prefaces to the volumes for which he was responsible, and six letters of Jerome, each accompanied by Erasmus’s summary and his annotations for the reader. To complete the picture of the edition itself, Brady and Olin include the prefaces of his fellow editors, Bruno and Basilius Amerbach. Taken together, these pieces represent Erasmus’s work on the nine volume collected edition published in 1516 by Froben in Basel. This volume brings together some material already available in the Correspondence, adds other pieces, and places them all in the context of the publication for which they were originally written, the Opera omnia of St. Jerome.

The Basel printer, Johann Amerbach, had taken up the edition of Jerome as the capstone of his program to publish the four doctors of the Church. He had completed collected editions of Ambrose and Augustine, when he began to collect manuscripts and recruit editors for Jerome as early as 1507. On Amerbach’s death in 1513, responsibility for its completion fell to his sons, Bruno and Basilius, and to his printing partner, Johann Froben. The edition had been in some difficulty, requiring skills in Greek and Hebrew rarely found north of the Alps at that time. What it most lacked was a chief editor committed to the project. Erasmus arrived in Basel in 1514 to put his prestige, his scholarship, and energy into the effort of bringing the daunting task to a successful conclusion. He assumed the direction of the project which has since justifiably been called the Erasmus/Froben edition. Erasmus took charge of editing and commenting on the Letters, a project he had been working on for many years already; the Amerbach sons were responsible for editing Jerome’s scriptural commentaries and closely related works, which appeared in volumes 5-9.

What students of Erasmus will welcome in this selection of pieces from the Jerome edition is the opportunity it offers to see Erasmus at work as a text critic and as a historical biographer. He explains his method of establishing the authenticity of doubtful texts, his criteria for textual emendation, and explicates problematic passages in Jerome’s letters. Erasmus’s biography of Jerome in this context offers a clear picture of how Erasmus looked at his sources and the historical method that he used in evaluating and handling evidence. This historical sense, though not flawless, also informed his approach to the problems of authenticity and textual criticism. These selections give us a good sense of the assumptions that informed his method; his practice, as those who have looked closely at his work agree, was often at variance with his pronouncements. In one area, however, scholarship has vindicated Erasmus’s judgments. He tried to establish a reliable canon of Jerome’s works, and in this endeavor his contribution to Hieronymian scholarship has been lasting.

Brady and Olin have provided full and helpful introductions and notes on the texts. Nevertheless, one value of such a selection of primary material in English is its power to stimulate the reader to go beyond the text in hand to other studies of Renaissance scholarship. The scholarship on Erasmus is vast, but two recent publications in English seem particularly accessible and useful to the readers of this translation. D’Amico’s work on the development of textual criticism north of the Alps offers a clear overview of the theories of text editing available to Erasmus and his responses to them. 1 The work of Lorenzo Valla clearly had a profound affect on Erasmus, who was responsible for the first printed edition of Valla’s Annotationes in 1505. Both Valla and Erasmus understood texts as subject to the decay of history and saw historical techniques as the method by which their errors could be removed and the text restored. Following Valla, Erasmus considered an understanding of paleography (he developed the idea of the lectio difficilior), context, grammar, and usage the tools for discovering the true reading of a text. Also useful is Rice’s Saint Jerome in the Renaissance, 2 which discusses in detail the recovery of the historical Jerome and the role Erasmus played in it. After reading the fluent translation of Erasmus’s biography of Jerome, the reader will appreciate Rice’s assessment of its critical stance and handling of the accretion of myth that had come to attach to the saint during the Middle Ages.

The conditions in which the writings of antiquity, both Christian and pagan, made the transition from manuscript to print have been extensively explored, particularly with reference to the source texts available to the editors, as well as the number and the quality of the manuscript collations. What may have nearly equal bearing on the quality of the texts that emerged, are the physical conditions and economic pressures under which the editors, their assistants, and the printers worked. Consider that in 1516 Froben and Erasmus produced not only the nine folio volumes of St. Jerome, but also the unprecedented Novum Instrumentum. Though these publications had long been in preparation, they were as much the product of a busy, noisy, early-modern workshop as of a quiet study.

Happily the editors of Patristic Scholarship: The Edition of St. Jerome have included among the illustrations several facsimiles of the title pages of the Erasmus-Froben edition. These reveal a distinct demarcation between the publishing style of the Amerbach-Froben firm and the firm established after Froben became the principal publisher. The previous editions of the Fathers had presented themselves to the world with simple title pages that were just that: lists of the works of the Father to be found in those volumes; information on the editors, publisher, and place of publication appears in prefaces and colophons. With the Erasmus-Froben edition we have entered a different era of scholarship and publishing; the name of both the editor and the publisher appear prominently on the title page of the first volume.

Patristic Scholarship: The Edition of St. Jerome is best read together with the other letters on the edition that appear in the CWE and in the correspondence of such other German humanists as Reuchlin, Beatus Rhenanus, and the Amerbach family. The letters written for publication in the edition of Jerome, together with the private letters exchanged between the scholars and printers who were involved in the enterprise, add another dimension to our understanding of the alliance between business and scholarship in the age of print, an alliance which Erasmus understood and used to further his goals of reform in scholarship and the Christian life.

  • [1] John F. D’Amico, Theory and Practice in Renaissance Textual Criticism: Beatus Rhenanus Between Conjecture and History, Berkeley: U of California P, 1988. [2] Eugene F. Rice, Jr., Saint Jerome in the Renaissance, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.