BMCR 2017.09.28

Exzerpieren – Kompilieren – Tradieren: Transformationen des Wissens zwischen Spätantike und Frühmittelalter. Millennium-Studien / Millennium studies, 64

, , , Exzerpieren - Kompilieren - Tradieren: Transformationen des Wissens zwischen Spätantike und Frühmittelalter. Millennium-Studien / Millennium studies, 64. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2017. viii, 264. ISBN 9783110501261. $126.00.

Table of Contents

Exzerpieren publishes papers first presented at a conference in Zürich, held in 2013. In their introductory comments, the volume’s editors reject older paradigms of cultural “decline and fall,” which assume that the transformation of knowledge during the fourth to eighth centuries inevitably signaled a change for the worse. Certainly, late antique and early medieval authors did simplify literary, historical, and legal knowledge inherited from the classical past. Much knowledge was lost as well. But the editors of this volume argue that an unbiased approach to the subject is necessary. They present the papers in this collection as a starting point of an investigation into the methods late antique and early medieval authors used in their adaptation of classical learning for a rapidly changing society. The detailed studies of the transformation of knowledge which follow undertake this investigation by analyzing these methods: excerpting, compiling, and transmitting knowledge. The arrangement of papers according to these methods demonstrates how late antique and early medieval authors, often disparaged for lacking originality, created a storehouse of knowledge for their historical era. Three papers are in English, the rest in German. All the papers have abstracts in English.

Marietta Horster’s study of the Periochae, an abbreviation of Livy’s History by an anonymous fourth-century epitomator, opens the section on excerpts. Comparison of passages on the Second Punic War from Livy and the Periochae reveals how the epitomator created an original narrative. Rather than following Livy in his emphasis on the Roman Republic, the narrative of the Periochae adopts epic conventions, highlighting its heroes’ moral attributes.

Christian Rohr studies the way Isidore and Bede excerpted passages on meteorological phenomena from the second book of Pliny’s Naturalis historia, which both authors knew first hand. While following Pliny’s organization, Isidore offered an explicitly Christian interpretation of meteorological phenomena in his Etymologiae. Intent on brevity, Bede excerpted passages from both Pliny and Isidore in his De natura rerum, but omitted Isidore’s moralizing interpretations. Rohr’s discussion of twelfth- and thirteenth-century encyclopaedists challenges the notion that classical knowledge was inevitably lost. Indeed, these later authors added excerpts from Aristotle to information taken from Pliny, Isidore, and Bede.

The volume’s second section, on compiling, begins with Inge Kroppenberg’s reconsideration of the Codex Theodosianus. Rather than dismissing the Codex because it does not conform to modern notions of jurisprudence, Kroppenberg suggests that further research should concentrate on the pastoral nature of late imperial rule, the sacral qualities of the Codex, and its place in the creation of a Christian Roman political community.

Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann suggests that Isidore wrote an early version of Etymologiae, Books I-X, as a compilation of essential knowledge intended for the use of the Visigothic King Sisebut (612-621) and his court. Isidore handled his pagan and Jewish sources carefully to minimize their potential influence on his Christian readers. He clearly thought aspects of classical culture, such as speculative philosophy, were out of date, and he omitted all mention of them. This version of the Etymologiae had political significance for Sisebut’s efforts to wrest control of southeastern Spain from the Byzantine emperor, since enhanced knowledge of Roman culture might support his claims to legitimacy.

According to Hans-Georg Hermann, the compilation of early medieval leges was a complex process. Political circumstances and the need to decide pressing cases led early medieval kings to preserve some laws, alter others, or even consign others to oblivion. Hermann’s analysis of law governing donation of mobile goods in a southern Frankish collection made during the second half of the sixth century, the Fragmenta Gaudenziana 15 (London, British Library, Add. MSS 46676), illustrates this process. Compiled from as many as four unacknowledged sources, the Fragmenta created new law to meet contemporary needs.

Mayke De Jong examines sources used by Paschasius Radbertus, a monk, later abbot of Corbie, in his Epitaphium Arsenii, written to honor Radbert’s mentor, Abbot Wala of Corbie, nicknamed Arsenius. The Epitaphium Arsenii defends Wala, a member of the Carolingian family, whose involvement in a failed rebellion against Emperor Louis the Pious in the early 830s cost him his abbacy and left his monastery open to allegations of infidelity. Written in two stages, the first book in the 830s, the second in the 850s, the Epitaphium Arsenii presents Radbert’s highly original version of the contentious politics of Louis the Pious’s reign. In a wide-ranging discussion of his classical and patristic sources, De Jong shows how Radbert’s choice of sources and style altered over time. He cited Terence frequently, either directly or through intermediate patristic sources, in the first book of the Epitaphium Arsenii. But in the 850s, when political conflicts ended in his retirement from Corbie’s abbacy, Terentian irony no longer seemed so apt. Instead, Radbert rebuked Wala’s enemies in language borrowed from Jeremiah and Job. Political turmoil, however, led to Radbert’s deeper engagement with Cicero, evident in his use of res publica to describe the resources of the Carolingian polity. Unfortunately, De Jong’s paper suffers from typographical errors.

Annina Seiler analyzes twenty-five Old English glosses from the Épinal glossary, unusual in their early use of the runic characters, wyn and thorn. These glosses evidence an Old English orthography that had fallen out of favor by the time the Épinal glossary was copied in the late seventh or early eighth century. Seiler demonstrates that these glosses originated as aids to the study of Orosius’s Historiae adversum paganos and Isidore’s Etymologiae. Since the glosses show more extensive reading of Isidore than previously recognized, more research is necessary, especially since their ultimate origin may be Canterbury’s cathedral school in the time of Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian. Seiler lists the glosses using wyn or thorn in an appendix to the paper.

The third section of the volume, on the transmission of knowledge, begins with Julian Führer’s paper on taxation in the Merovingian kingdom. Führer argues that Merovingian kings adapted imperial Rome’s tax system for their own use. He exposes as unfounded the assumption that taxation ended in the late sixth-century Frankish kingdom. This assumption stems from a misunderstanding of Gregory of Tours’ protest against excessive, illegitimate, taxes, levied forcefully by King Chilperich and his queen, Fredegunda. Frankish kings were still collecting taxes in Fredegar’s time, although their administration, now centered on royal treasuries in a divided kingdom, no longer resembled imperial Rome’s. Führer makes a strong case for the application of their extensive knowledge of imperial administrative practices in the Frankish kingdom. Yet evidence of such administrative practice has to be balanced against the significant political and social change occurring within the emerging Frankish kingdom. The end result seems to be a tax system that had been modified gradually over several centuries, in a process that casts doubt upon the model of an abrupt rupture in administrative practices with the foundation of so-called barbarian kingdoms.

Ian Wood questions the assumption that late Merovingian culture was in decline. Wood finds ample evidence for knowledge of classical and patristic texts in seventh- and early eighth-century manuscripts and in works written by contemporary Merovingian authors. Yet Merovingian authors cited the classics less frequently than the Bible and Fathers, which were more suited to their interest in writing hagiography and the history of the church and the Frankish kingdom. Wood’s provisional list of Merovingian manuscripts at the end of his paper comes with a reminder that much has been lost which otherwise would provide more evidence of knowledge of classical culture in the later Merovingian period. His paper demonstrates the need for more investigation into the Merovingian origins of what is often described as the Carolingian renaissance.

Karl Ubl’s analysis of the rediscovered Septinas septem provides evidence for the continuity of legal knowledge in the Merovingian period. Copied between 750 and 780 in the northern Frankish kingdom, this version of the Septinas septem, now Paris, Bnf, lat. 4411, is one of the earliest witnesses to the late sixth-century C-text of the Lex salica. Whoever compiled the Septinas septem wanted to create a guide for use of the Lex salica. The contents of the Septinas septem indicate that the Lex salica was still in use during the later Merovingian period, contradicting the view that it had fallen into disuse prior to Carolingian reform. Ubl suggests the Lex salica played a role in the formation of Frankish identity, for the compiler of the Septinas septem made a significant change in substituting Francus as a synonym for the original ingenuus found in the Lex salica. Ubl’s paper ends with a critical edition of the Septinas septem from Paris, Bnf, lat. 4411.

Peter Stotz’s paper summarizes previously published research on a late tenth- century anthology of late antique and early medieval historical texts, now preserved in a copy of a lost exemplar, MS Bamberg Staatsbibliothek, Hist. 3. Intended for aristocratic Italian lay readers, this historical anthology contained simplified versions of several texts, many pertaining to Lombard history. The anthologist modified the original texts’ vocabulary to make the material more comprehensible to Italian speakers, abridged and simplified content, and added passages of moralizing Christian instruction.

The volume ends with a brief conclusion by Andreas Their. Their highlights the importance of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages in the creation of a canon of literary and legal texts used throughout the Middle Ages, the innovative applications of knowledge in a creative transformation of knowledge, and the necessity of examining the immediate social and political conditions which influenced the ways late antique and early medieval authors chose to modify knowledge.

In general, the papers in Exzerpieren-Kompilieren-Tradieren offer valuable insights into the way late antique and early medieval authors and their audiences coped with rapid political and social change. However they responded to changing circumstances, these authors made deliberate choices about preserving, modifying, or even consigning to oblivion knowledge available to them. This is as true of the fourth-century anonymous author of the Periochae, about whom little is known at present, as of the better known, ninth-century Radbert of Corbie. The papers in this volume not only make a convincing case for the need for more research into the methods by which late antique and early medieval authors creatively transformed the learning of the ancient world, but also provide models for carrying on that research in the future.

Moreover, the papers in Exzerpieren-Kompilieren-Tradieren clearly demonstrate that older paradigms of decline and fall, focused almost exclusively on discontinuity and rupture, obscure the subtle changes that are the hallmark of a paradoxical era. While acknowledging the significant loss of knowledge, these papers provide alternative approaches to understanding the creative transformation of knowledge by examining in detail a particular author’s intention and methods. As a result, papers on a seemingly abstract topic offer valuable insights into the inner lives of a number of late antique and early medieval authors, some well-known, others obscure in their anonymity. The result is a significant contribution to the growing body of research on this as well as other topics, which as a whole call into question a host of assumptions about those frameworks of historical periodization which create artificial distinctions between Antiquity and the Middle Ages.