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Reinhold F Glei, Nicola Kaminski, Franz Lebsanft (eds.), Boethius Christianus? Transformationen der ‘Consolatio Philosophiae’ in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit (De Gruyter, 2010)

Reinhold F. Glei, Nicola Kaminski, and Franz Lebsanft (eds.), Boethius Christianus? Transformationen der ‘Consolatio Philosophiae’ in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010. ISBN 978-3-11-021415-4, iv + 435 pp. Hbk. € 99.95.

Reviewed by Tim William Machan

[1]  The simple question ‘Was St Augustine Christian?’ can easily be answered ‘yes’, just as ‘Was the Viking Erik Bloodax Christian?’ can easily be answered ‘no’. ‘Was Boethius Christian?’, despite its comparable simplicity, proves far more difficult to address and, for that very reason, far more interesting. Born into a Christian family and educated in the ways common to elite Christians of his day, Boethius drew a death sentence from Theodoric the Great at least in part because his orthodox faith did not sit well with the emperor’s Arian inclinations. Boethius certainly might seem thoroughly Christian, then, were it not for the fact that his greatest and most influential work, De consolatione philosophiae, which he composed in prison while awaiting execution, seems to go out of its way to avoid any whiff of Christian history or doctrine. There’s nothing about salvation here, nor the Trinity, nor prayer, nor Heaven. Not that someone like St Augustine would have been troubled by any of the work’s neo-Platonic sentiments. In its rejection of worldly goods and affirmation of providential wisdom, the Consolatio is entirely consistent with Christianity, and it certainly inspired industries of Christian copying and commentary in the later Middle Ages. But does that make it, and Boethius, Christian?

[2]  In one way or another, the sixteen original essays in this collection all address this very question. For their part, the editors imply a resounding ‘no’ by opening the volume with a fairly bald description of what went through Boethius’s mind: ‘Sein Heiland war Sokrates, nicht Christus, and seine Apostel waren nicht Petrus and Paulus, sondern Platon und Aristotles’ (2). But they go on to adopt a more flexible view, and, indeed, the rest of the contributors eschew speculation about Boethius’s thought and concentrate on various documentary aspects of the reception history of the Consolatio, including manuscripts, printed books, commentaries, glosses, illuminations, and literary communities. Whatever the depths of Boethius’s Christianity, he was read – and read enthusiastically – as an orthodox Christian, and in the process of demonstrating this reading, the essays offer a wealth of information not only about the Consolatio but about medieval cultural practices in general.

[3]  To our own age, focused as it is on national traditions and cultural ruptures, the Consolatio is a reminder of what might be called the holistic orientation of the Middle Ages – the notion that books are the means to and demonstration of an intellectual and social community that spanned Europe and the divergent ranks of its people. We read here, thus, about permutations of the Latin text, French commentaries, and translations into German, Italian, Catalan, and Hebrew as well as French. We learn from Bernd Bastert that the earliest printed German edition was a deluxe volume that therefore appealed to a wealthy audience, from Manfred Eikelmann that a slightly earlier German translation was directed at the laity, and from Stephan Müller that the still earlier translation of Notker Labeo evokes the atmosphere of St Gallen in the way it draws on specifically monastic teaching practices to elucidate the Consolatio. Boethius’s work could even become part of the intellectual make-up of the semi-literate, as in wall paintings that incorporate extracts (Ulrike Heinrichs’s essay) or in manuscripts that use the Wheel of Fortune as a mnemonic device for Christian soteriology (Matthias Vollmer’s essay).

[4]  As divergent as these cultural practices may be, they are united not simply by belief in the importance of the Consolatio but by a conviction in its Christian orientation that is so strong that it can flesh out what Boethius, for whatever reason, was thought to have left implicit. For Book One Meter Five in the earliest German printing, ‘Itaque libet exclamare’ (which is what Boethius seems to have written) thus continues ‘ad deum celi’ (45). Among the glosses in a fourteenth-century French translation is the doctrinally reassuring ‘Ceste opinion est vraye et selon la foy’ (80-81). The ninth-century commentator Remigius of Auxerre explains the reference in Book Three Meter Nine to ‘summi forma boni’ this way: “Formam vocat filium Dei qui est sapientia Dei, per quem omnia facta sunt’ (167). And the preface to a fifteenth-century German translation takes the pre-emptive route of affirming the work’s orthodoxy for readers before they begin reading. The Consolatio shows, according to the preface, ‘Wie Boethius durch Erkenntnis Gottes and der Natur…von der Philosophie getröstet werden ist’ (140). Set against intellectual traditions like these, a fifteenth-century German translation’s insertion into Book Four Prose Six of an excursus on deceased, unbaptized children scarcely surprises, nor does the excursus’s conclusion: ‘die Seele is edler als den Körper’ (125). And Book Four Prose Six, it’s worth recalling, concentrates on fate and providence.

[5]  To bring together a volume of essays on the question ‘Was Boethius Christian’ is an endeavor nearly as ambitious as the Consolatio itself. And so, inevitably, there are things to quibble with. The thriving tradition of English translators (Alfred, Chaucer, Walton, Elizabeth I) is nowhere to be found, for instance, even as multiple essays rehearse Notker’s foundational role in the German tradition or repeat the notion that Boethius’s book is De consolatione philosphiae, not De consolatione theologiae. More editorial oversight of the essays would have helped, as would have an index more detailed than a mere list of proper names.

[6]  But as is, this is a learned, detailed, expansive, and informative book that I would recommend to anyone interested in the reception history of the Consolatio. In its breadth, Boethius Christianus? demonstrates the complex interrelations of texts (visual as well as written), ideas, interpretations, and cultural practices in the Middle Ages. As topical as it now is to focus on discontinuities in medieval thought, the history of the Consolatio reminds us how coherence could be identified and maintained. The volume also shows that this coherence, weirdly, can be a gesture every bit as powerful and disruptive as religious heresy and royal deposition. It demonstrates how reception history can overtake and remake the object it receives and then perpetuate that remade object for future generations. Was Boethius Christian? Absolutely.

Marquette University, August 2011