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Commenting on pagan wisdom: the last medieval commentaries on the Distichs of Cato

W. Martin Bloomer

University of Notre Dame

A fundamental challenge facing not simply this panel but the medieval reader was the difference between wisdom literature on the one hand and the interpretation of literature as wisdom on the other. The accessus tradition and more importantly the approach to literature taught in the schools that it reflects has the reader consider of whatever piece of literature is before him, cui parti philosophiae subponatur. The answer for most pagan literature is ethics. Then of course interpretation becomes interesting as the commentator must make from what Ovid says about how to behave or less directly how he has Apollo act a lesson in Christian ethics. Pagan wisdom literature will be subjected to some of the same, often allegorizing, methods, but it offers a more sustained and theoretical challenge as it describes or proscribes a set of values with no prima facie need for Christian supplement and does so with a certain authority.

The most widely read text of pagan sapiential literature was the collection of proverbs known as the Distichs of Cato, read after the Psalter was learned by students throughout the middle ages (and beyond). These two-line verse precepts, given their Greek appellation Distichs or called simply Cato, guided the student towards a general morality, but emphasized in particular the duty to educate oneself. The history of this text as it gathers paratexts including full commentaries and translations into many vernaculars is a case study in the rich and varied history of efforts not simply to moralize the text but to transmit and transform ancient wisdom. Indeed, the Distichs come to be a sort of architecture or substrate on which to build new ethical and sapiential works. One should begin a history of this commentary tradition with the Carolingians, with the glossing of Remigius of Auxerre and the accessus, the latter in all probability reflecting the late antique schools (as does the dedicatory epistula). But for the sake of offering a robust comparison, I leap to the end of the middle ages, when Erasmus wrote a commentary that he hoped would supplant two very successful late fourteenth century commentaries, those of Philip of Bergamo and Robert of Euremodio. In finding fault with his medieval predecessors’ ethical understanding Erasmus was trying to open an unbridgeable gap in philological method certainly but also in the ethical understanding and application of the text. His method will not be so modern or novel as he pronounces.

My method will be to present what Erasmus says of his predecessors, characterize their commentaries, and compare Erasmus and Robert treating a single passage. Of Philip Erasmus wrote uncharitably ineptissime philosophatur. More particularly he does not like and certainly does not follow the adducing of parallels from Christian literature. His philology returns the Distichs to its historical milieu. In so doing he made the Distichs again an early school text, one of those preliminary texts we have students read. I will describe not simply Erasmus’ animus in abusing his printed competition in the field of Christian education but how in practice his commentary tried to educate the reader in a new, self-styled critical theology. Still the Distichs' great tradition as sapiential literature did influence him, but not in the edition of the Distichs. The Adagia in some formal ways, including the production of miniature discursive essays as showpieces for what you are to do with a sententia, reprises the expansive mode of the old commentaries.

Session/Panel Title

Post-Classical Wisdom Literature (organized by the Medieval Latin Studies Group)

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