2021 will be the year in which my two-year project ‘A Living Law’ starts in earnest. Funded by a research scholarship from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the project commences in May 2021. The project aims to shed light on the work of the early medieval scholars involved in the compilation of small, ‘minor’ canonical collections.
Recent years have seen some work on these smaller, ‘unstructured’ collections of limited, mostly local impact, but relative to the important academic advances in the study a number of important, widely-circulated canonical collections (think of the new edition of the Hibernensis, and the project chronicled on pseudoisidor.mgh.de), these works are somewhat overlooked. I want to focus on the canonical dynamism on a more quotidian level, which latches on other current historical research into the Carolingian period, which has come to realise that the creative energy sustaining the revival of learning was fostered in more local, personal, and institutional settings and was not the direct result of a court imposing its agenda on its subjects (think of the important studies on local priests).
The Collectio quadrigentorum capitulorum, the Collection in 400 chapters (or: Collectio 400 from hereon) has caught my interest some years back and it has continued to intrigue me. There are several reasons for it, but one must be Friedrich Maassen’s remark on the collection in his 1870 important work Geschichte der Quellen und Literatur des kanonischen Rechtes that the arrangement of this seemingly very sophisticated systematic collection is ‘ohne Plan’, – ‘without a plan’ – observing that the text abruptly jumps from one subject to the other. Hubert Mordek confessed that ’with the best will in the world’ he could find no system in this systematically arranged collection either. Reconciling the obvious richness in source material available to the compiler of the Collectio 400 with its perceived disorganisation offers a very attractive challenge. But just as challenging, as I found out, is the puzzle of identifying the collection’s sources and their provenances, and digging deeper it produces more insular connections than obvious at first instance. Before exploring these connections, though, let me first very briefly introduce the Collectio 400.
The canonical collection named ‘Die Sammlung in 400 Capiteln’ by Friedrich Maassen (in one of his less inspired moments) is one of the many products of the vigorous canonical activity of the eighth and ninth centuries. It is a systematically arranged collection featuring just over 400 chapters comprising ecclesiastical rules from a wealth of sources ranging from Roman secular law, ecumenical councils, papal letters, Gallic synods, Irish and Anglo-Saxon penitentials, to theological treatises and, importantly, the Bible.
Sometime in the middle of the eleventh century, the St-Gall monk known to us as Ekkehart IV (c. 980-c. 1060) set down to write a continuation to the century-old chronicle of his monastery, the Casus Sancti Galli. His continuation took the form of a series of anecdotes about key figures in the history of his monastery, starting with the combative bishop and abbot Salomo. Early in the text, while introducing the background of Salomo, Ekkehard shares an anecdote about the most famous couple of Irishmen to visit the monastery of St-Gall in the ninth century.
These two men are the Irish bishop Marcus and the son of his sister, Moengal, whom the monks of St-Gall quickly renamed Marcellus. They appeared on the monastery’s doorstep sometime between 849 and 872, on their return trip from Rome. The monks invite the Irish bishop to stay for a while, but it would seem that their main target was recruiting his nephew, who, Ekkehard says, was most learned in religious as well as secular scholarship (‘in divinis et humanis eruditissimus’). After some deliberation they both decided to remain at St-Gall with some Irish-speaking servants. Their money, horses, and mules were given to their companions who would continue travelling back to Ireland, but Marcus is said to have kept his books, gold, and costly vestments (‘pallia’) for himself and for St Gallus (‘sibi et sancto Gallo retinuit’).
The phrase ‘for himself and for St Gallus’ can either mean that some of Marcus’s books were donated to the monastery while he held on to others, or that an arrangement was made that the possessions of the Irish bishop would fall to the abbey after Marcus’s death. Either way, this phrase constitutes the only explicit mention of an Irish traveller providing St-Gall with books. It is a point worth stressing; there is no other evidence of Irishmen giving books to the monastery of St-Gall. And even in this one instance, we are left with many remaining questions: for instance, we don’t know how many books Marcus actually had on him during his travels, where these books originated, how Marcus had obtained them (some perhaps brought from Ireland, but others were probably collected during his travels), or which texts they contained.
Sometime in the middle of the ninth century, the Civate monk Hildemar wrote a commentary on that most important of medieval monastic texts: the Rule of Benedict. Meticulously commenting on (nearly) every verse and sentence of the Regula, his Expositio is a very sizeable book. Over 600 pages in its (relatively) modern edition! Very few people nowadays make it through 600 pages of Latin commentary with ease, which is probably partly to blame for the fact that this important testimony to ninth-century monastic thought and practice has not received more interest by historians. This led to the initiative of Albrecht Diem (Syracuse), Julian Hendrix (Carthage College, WI), Corinna Prior (Toronto) and Mariel Urbanus (Utrecht) to ask fellow scholars to translate bite-size sections of the Expositio, together forming the first English translation of this long text. The results are slowly filling the project’s website, complete with Latin text, background information and forum. In a time when historians are no longer awarded indefinite contracts to work on decade-long projects on their own, this approach to a huge task could be the key for future projects.