BMCR 2020.06.32

La transmission du savoir grec en Occident: Guillaume de Moerbeke, le Laur. Plut. 87.25 (Themistius, in de an.) et la bibliotheque de Boniface VIII

Fabio Acerbi, Gudrun Vuillemin Diem, La transmission du savoir grec en Occident: Guillaume de Moerbeke, le Laur. Plut. 87.25 (Themistius, in de an.) et la bibliotheque de Boniface VIII. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2019. 266 p.. ISBN 9789462701694 €49,50.


In 1955 Lorenzo Minio-Paluello offered a careful overview of the Latin tradition of Aristotle’s De anima before 1500, taking account of the broader historical framework of the circulation of the De anima and the multiple linguistic and cultural landscapes within which philosophy was inherited and developed during the Middle Ages.[1] In the present volume, Fabio Acerbi and Gudrun Vuillemin-Diem integrate Minio-Paluello’s historical-philological approach within an historical-cultural one that considers the circulation of manuscripts and the role of libraries in thirteenth-century Europe, with a specific focus on William of Moerbeke’s Latin version of Themistius’ commentary on the De anima. They do so while dealing at considerable length with the story of the Greek manuscript Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 87.25.[2]

The enquiry first provides a detailed description of the manuscripts and their contents (section 2), and moves on to examine the traces which allow one to identify the Florentine manuscript as the model that the Dominican friar William of Moerbeke used for his translation of Themistius’ commentary (sections 3-4). On this basis, it is possible to study the literary features of Moerbeke’s translation (section 5) and the connections between the Florentine manuscript and Moerbeke’s Latin version of the excerpts of Philoponus’ commentary on De anima (section 6). Then, Acerbi and Vuillemin-Diem examine a Greek-Latin glossary that is included in the manuscript (section 7), and they end by dealing with the issue of the presence of the manuscript within the collection of Greek texts in the papal library from the second half of the thirteenth century (section 8). Thus, the manuscript is studied on three different levels: its contents and their relation with Moerbeke’s Latin translation of Themistius; the place of the Florentine manuscript among the witnesses of the larger cultural engagement of the Dominican translator with Aristotelian psychology; and the history of Plut. 87.25, including its significance for the role of the Papal library in the broader cultural setting of medieval Europe.

The ‘index’ of the manuscript suggests that this codex was basically created to provide access to Aristotle’s doctrine on the soul. The manuscript contains the text of the De anima (ff. 1r-80v) and Themistius’ commentary (ff. 82r-283v), as well as a scholium that describes the content of the three books of Aristotle’s treatise, and a Greek-Latin glossary (f. 284r) concerning the philosophical language of the De anima. This manuscript, dating to the decades between the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries, is quite close to manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Coislin 386, an eleventh-century codex containing both the De anima and Themistius’ commentary. Richard Heinze, in his edition of Themistius’ commentary published in 1899, had already stressed the closeness between the two manuscripts, and Acerbi and Vuillemin-Diem’s research concludes that the Florentine manuscript is a faithful copy of the Parisian one (p. 8).

Two different hands are responsible for the transcription of the texts in the manuscript. Hand A composed the text on ff. 1r-175r, while hand B wrote the text on ff. 175v-284v. Three other hands are responsible for the notes added to the main texts. Through a detailed comparison between Themistius’ Greek text in the Florentine manuscript (Q) and Moerbeke’s translation (G), the two scholars show the dependence of G on Q: they list 71 common omissions and 106 occasions in which G reflects the corrections of the Greek text of Q which are present in the manuscript as notes to the main text. The cases in which G differs from Q can be largely explained by the fact that Themistius’ philosophical lexicon appears to have been quite unusual.

Careful analysis by the two scholars shows that to overcome the limits of a translation de verbo ad verbum, the Dominican friar sacrificed the terminological correspondence between the Greek and Latin texts in favor of greater fluidity, and explained the terms that the Greek normally leaves implicit, making small additions to otherwise complete sentences. Moerbeke also adds explanations of some Greek terms and a free translation of some expressions. Placing Moerbeke’s translation within its cultural framework, Acerbi and Vuillemin-Diem note that his work on Themistius’ text is quite close to what he does with the translation of some excerpts of Philoponus’ commentary on the De anima. A note at the end of this translation, in manuscript Toledo, Biblioteca Capitular 95.13 (f. 78r), explains that Moerbeke translated only the commentary on chapters 4-9 of Philoponus’ text, and did not consider the whole text because of the bad state of the Greek exemplar available to him. The reconstruction of the chronology of Moerbeke’s activity in the late 1260s allows Acerbi and Vuillemin-Diem to draw the profile of a sort of cultural project revolving around Aristotle’s doctrine on the soul. On September 22, 1267, Moerbeke completed the translation of Themistius’ commentary, and on September 1268 he finished the Latin version of Ammonius’ commentary on the De interpretatione, while on December 17 he terminated work on Philoponus, entitling it De intellectu.

Looking at the Greek model of Philoponus used by Moerbeke, Acerbi and Vuilleim-Diem advance the hypothesis that the translator had access to a manuscript which was still part of the papal library in the last years of the thirteenth century and that was later brought to Constantinople (p. 106). ,The two scholars demonstrate in greater detail the closeness of the Greek text of Plut. 87.25 with the version of Philoponus’ text used by the Byzantine monk Sophonias in his work on the Aristotelian corpus. This Greek intellectual, who lived and worked under the emperor Andronicus II Paleologus (1282-1328), was sent to Italy as ambassador to the court of Charles II of Anjou in 1294-1296. In 1295 the register of the papal library lists a Greek manuscript of Philoponus’ commentary on the De anima, but such an item has no equivalent in the register of 1311, which means that between 1295 and 1311 the manuscript was removed from the papal library. On this basis, the two scholars suggest the possibility that Sophonias brought the manuscript to Constantinople on the occasion of his Italian legation as a gift that he received in the context of his diplomatic activity. A further fact supports Acerbi’s and Vuillemin-Diem’s hypothesis: Carlos Steel has discovered that the same version of book III of Philoponus’ commentary, which Moerbeke had used for his translation, is recorded in the margins of manuscript Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 87.20, which is a fourteenth-century codex made in Constantinople.[3]

This analysis places the manuscript, its contents, and its use by Moerbeke into two historical perspectives. Plut. 87.25 has been clearly used as a working tool to facilitate the Greek-Latin transfer of philosophical and scientific writings and doctrines. The short glossary offers clear evidence of this role of the manuscript: the aim of such a text is, in fact, to provide an understanding of the lexicon of a specific section of Aristotle’s De anima. The Latin text used in the glossary is the so-called Translatio nova that Moerbeke completed in the 1260s, namely on the second redaction, the so-called recensio Ravennatis, that the translator made around 1266-1268. Acerbi and Vuilleim-Diem suggest the possibility that, on the occasion of the translation of Themistius’ text, Moerbeke came back to his early version of the De anima and had direct recourse to the Greek text of the Aristotelian treatise, which could certainly be the one recorded in the first part of Plut. 87.25, to revise the Latin. The Greek-Latin glossary was therefore composed after 1266-1268 by a hand different from the one of the Dominican friar. It is found in three specific sections of the De anima, namely 412b8–413b3, 412b27, and 414a26-b13, and the Greek text of the Aristotelian treatise used in it is the one preserved in the same manuscript.

In addition to Moerbeke’s use of the manuscript, it is also essential to consider its role in the cultural and political relations which developed around the papal library from the second half of the thirteenth century. The Florentine manuscript is, in fact, directly linked with the history of the papal library, and explicit traces of its presence among the Greek texts of the popes date to the pontificate of Boniface VIII. As already noted, the repertorium that pope Caetani ordered in 1295 lists the manuscript of Themistius’ paraphrase of the De anima, but this item has no equivalent in the repertory of the papal library that Clement V ordered in 1311, which suggests that the manuscript was part of the library of Boniface VIII but was removed before 1311.

Scholars have supposed that the collection of Greek texts of the papal library was formed mainly of manuscripts that were originally part of the royal library of the Suevian kings, for the most part of Manfred. Charles I of Anjou gifted these volumes to pope Clement IV after Manfred’s defeat and death at the battle of Benevento in 1266. Supporting this thesis, the acronym Anđ, which marks  several manuscripts including Plut. 87.25, has been thought to mean antiquus or Andegavensis and to indicat that the manuscripts were part of these spoils of war. Acerbi and Vuillemin-Diem offer a quite different evaluation of the origin of the Greek section of Boniface VIII’s library, recalling the existence of direct diplomatic and cultural connections between Rome and Constantinople. In addition, the two scholars note that if the acronym Anđ indicates that the manuscript belonged to the Angevin donation, it must date to 1266-1267, while the Latin subscriptions date to the following decades, certainly before 1295, since the catalogue of Boniface VIII’s library was made using these subscriptions and the date of this list therefore establishes the terminus ante quem.

Acerbi’s and Vuillemin-Diem’s enquiry into Plut. 87.25 offers an example of a fruitful methodology of study whose basic premise is to consider a manuscript as a historical document with many values. One may examine the content of the manuscript, which illuminates the philosophical “acculturation” of medieval Latin Europe, particularly in the second half of the thirteenth century. The importance of Aristotle’s De anima and of the series of Greek and Arabic commentaries for the development of philosophical and theological discourse between the middle of the thirteenth century and the middle of the fourteenth century requires us to reconsider Moerbeke’s contribution in shaping a crucial part of the medieval Latin philosophical language. In this respect, the Florentine manuscript should be considered a relevant document for European intellectual history, providing the opportunity to study the translation activity of William of Moerbeke, improving our understanding of his role as a cultural mediator between the Greek philosophical world and Latin Europe. However, Acerbi’s and Vuillemin-Diem’s research adds a further perspective. The identification of the origin of Plut. 87.25, which was one of the manuscripts of the Greek collection of Boniface VIII, links it to the papal library, whose development was deeply involved in the political relations and diplomatic exchanges between Rome and Constantinople. These became a crucial ‘door’ by which philosophical culture entered into Latin Europe.


[1] Lorenzo Minio-Paluello, “Le texte du De Anima d’Aristote: le traductions latines avant 1500,” in Id., Opuscula: The Latin Aristotle (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1972), pp. 250-276.

[2] Fabio Acerbi, Gudrun Vuillemin-Diem, “Un nouveau manuscrit de la collection philosophique utilisé par Guillaume de Moerbeke: le Par. gr. 2575,” Przegląd Tomistyczny 21 (2015): 219-288

[3] Carlos Steel, “Newly Discovered Scholia from Philoponus’s Lost Commentary on De Anima III,” Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales 84 (2017): 223-243.