Lost Scholarship

[Somehow wordpress swallowed this post back in February and never published it.]

I’ve started digging around in the scholarly lit on the authorship of the prayers of St. Anselm.  While JP Migne records 72 prayers (it’s his numbering that I have been using when I post translations), things apparently stand quite a bit leaner than that.  It’s “well known” that many are composed by another Benedictine abbot from the same era, John of Fecamp.  Still others seem to be the work of yet other hands.  My English translation prepared by Benedicta Ward only gives 19 prayers to St. Anselm, which she bases on the critical edition prepared by Dom Schmitt.

Sadly, her introduction does not go into any of the text criticism.  Why these nineteen?  What are the marks of authenticity?  Who wrote all those other prayers?  Are there degrees of uncertainty or have we successfully identified the authors of all the other prayers?

I write sadly because no one else has gone into that detail either—not in English, anyway.  Her introduction would have been an excellent place to centralize that information.  Southern’s magisterial biography doesn’t either.  So, irritated and wanting to know how the questions stood, I went to Schmitt.  No-brainer, right?

Schmitt’s five-volume work doesn’t give the reasoning either!  Instead, there is the apologetic note that the grandfather of this field of study, Dom Andrea Wilmart, had been the intended preparer of the critical edition of the prayers.  Wilmart having sadly died before he could complete the work, Schmitt finished his manuscript.  Neither volume one nor volume three give any of the reasoning behind the exclusions.

Now this sort of grunt work has a bookish appeal to it, so I decided to put my hands on Wilmart’s work and get to the bottom of this.  Appalling for this day and age, his Auteurs Spirituels et texte devots du Moyen age latin (1931) is not to be found on the internet.  Has no one seen fit to scan this foundational text for the universal library?  Apparently not.

Luckily I work next door to a monastery of bookish scholars.  I put in a call to a friend, Fr. Boniface, in the hopes that his library held the work.  I was thrilled to find it waiting for me in my mailbox at work the next day, and in pretty good shape for an 85 year old book.  They even had Wilmart’s obituary taped to the inside cover and properly sourced.  God bless Germanic scholarship!

Wilmart sadly was not enlightened enough to compose in Latin, so I had to dust off my French for the task.  I’m pretty rusty but as long as I am reading in my fields I can still hack enough French to follow along.  Maybe I’ll try to get good again soon.  Anyway, I’ve only had the book a few days but I am once again appalled to find that Wilmart does not give a full account of my questions in this book.

The ground-level work on authorship appears to be found in a lively exchange of articles in the 1920s.  That’s fantastic…for all the Benedictine scholars living shortly after the Great War.  A hundred years later, they are not floating around the internet as they should be.  It is simply unacceptable that the scholarly work of a lifetime should be unearthed by these gentlemen long ago and then lost because of lack of access.

Worse, I’m beginning to fear that the text criticism on St. Anselm may be incomplete.  There may not be answers to the questions I posed above, at least not complete ones.  There’s always an inherent uncertainty to authorship questions, but I have the growing suspicion that what we have is a fraction of the incomplete vanity project of Wilmart.

No wonder Benedicta Ward didn’t go into it in 1970.  It’s possible no one has, or that no one has finished it.  I suppose the next step, after I verify all that I can out of Schmitt and Wilmart, is to get a hold of those articles from the 1920s.  What happens when they come up empty?

Start a new inquiry into the prayers of St. Anselm?

I’m reminded that not even knowledge lasts forever and that some day, perhaps quite soon, we will have no idea even that there is a question about the authorship of these prayers.  Will we completely forget about John of Fecamp in a hundred years?  And what about all the claims of modern scholarship that rest on worm-eaten foundations like this one?  Just how tenuous are the supports for any of the claims, historical or otherwise, in the sources of the 21st century?

This is no mere Wikipedia problem—does Benedicta Ward’s translation know what it is talking about?  Does Southern?  Should I just translate all 72 prayers of St. Anselm, put his name on them, and call it a day?  Condemn John of Fecamp to oblivion?

Irritating.  But also quite interesting.  It turns out we will always need monks copying manuscripts of one sort or another.


2 thoughts on “Lost Scholarship

  1. The gaps in scholarship are always chasms; and the solidity of it is often like that of bodies — real because of its strongest links, but still mostly empty space.

    You might look at Jean-François Cottier’s Anima mea: Prières privées et textes de dévotion du Moyen Age latin, if you can find it — I don’t have access to it, but from the description it looks like it is an updated version of a doctoral thesis that attempted to work out some of the critical history of the Anselmian apocrypha.


    1. Oof–more French. Great reference though, and I’d especially like to read some of those introductory chapters that set the table. I work within stone’s throw of CUA’s excellent library…but the time, where is it?

      Thanks for the tip!


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