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The Sources of Wisdom: Robert Holcot’s Political Theology

Erin Walsh

Duke University

The Dominican preacher, exegete, and philosopher, Robert Holcot (b. circa 1290) trained at Oxford and there completed his regency (c. 1338). At this point in his career he became acquainted with Richard de Bury, the bishop of Durham and scholar often credited with composing the Philobiblion. His relationship with the house of Richard de Bury provided Holcot access to classical texts which feature prominently in his later commentary on the Twelve Prophets. Drawing upon these same resources, Holcot composed a commentary on the book of Wisdom that became a “bestseller” in the medieval world. This text, Postilla super librum Sapientiae, was readily found in any well-curated 15th century European library, and survives in 175 manuscripts and over twelve incunabula spread across Europe. Rarely commented on, the book of Wisdom becomes in Holcot’s hands the raw material for constructing an elaborate scaffold for building a political theology that is deeply informed by pre-Christian authors and Roman political sensibilities.

Frequent extra-biblical allusions were a feature of fourteenth century writing as a strategy to entice readers. This feature of Holcot’s sermons on Wisdom has been characterized as merely decorative. The premise of the present project is to challenge this characterization of Holcot’s engagement with classical sources and to highlight the explanatory work that these pre-Christian texts do within the sermons. Within the first two sermons, Holcot painstakingly sets out the purpose of the book of Wisdom, and classical texts are invoked as part of a genealogy for sapientia that becomes fully realized in the Incarnation.

The evolutionary model, however, does not lead Holcot to dispense with “pagan” voices, but he repeatedly returns to the texts of Cicero and Seneca for insight into political and social structures. Holcot is particularly concerned with highlighting the importance of this book for rulers, and he paraphrases Cicero’s De officiis to provide an explanation of how human communities came to be organized and ruled. The political backdrop of early 14th century England and the political unrest sparked by Edward II may provide suggestive context for the urgency of Holcot’s political concerns. This text therefore contains a type of social logic that addresses political crisis through literary allusion and verbal virtuosity. This particular invocation of Cicero provides a perfect instance of how Holcot pairs a classical author with a Christian writer (in this case, Boethius) to draw out the implications of the biblical book for modern readers. Paraphrasing Ambrose’s Hexameron, Holcot further notes that the call to love justice is not simply equivalent to loving other virtues, but the presence of justice indicates a harmony of the rest of the virtues. It is noteworthy that Holcot’s use of concordia for harmony of the virtues is not, as far as I can tell, present in Ambrose’s work nor do the passages in the Hexameron discussing iustitia contain this sentiment, but this term is pervasive in classical thought on the organization of both the macrocosm of the state and the microcosm of the household. This paper will focus on links Holcot builds between the texts he cites, often by the interchange of key terms and flexibility in quotation.

Session/Panel Title

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

Session/Paper Number

36.3

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