The Transmission of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae in the Carolingian Age

By Papahagi, Adrian | Medium Aevum, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Transmission of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae in the Carolingian Age


Papahagi, Adrian, Medium Aevum


The question of the transmission of Boethius' De consolatione Philosophiae (c.524) has given rise to more than one fascinating--but not always irrefutable--theory. There is nonetheless something of a consensus among Boethian scholars, who regard Alcuin (735-804) as the providential figure who rescued the famous prosimetrum from oblivion, and brought it to the attention of the Carolingian world. (1) According to this hypothesis, Alcuin discovered in Italy one rare sixth-century codex of the Consolatio, which he then brought to France. Copies were then made and circulated from one end of Charlemagne's empire to the other, from Tours to St Gall. (2) Some scholars, however, have argued that Alcuin was not the first Anglo-Saxon to have known the Consolatio: Aldhelm (c.639-709), Bede (c.672-735), and Tatwine (d. 734) are amongst those believed to have been familiar with the text before Alcuin was even born. In that case, at least one Consolatio manuscript must have existed in England, and Alcuin would have had no need to discover in Italy a text that had been long known in his home country.

But is there any evidence that the Consolatio was known in Britain before 80% or even before 900? Is there any evidence that Alcuin played a part in the 'rediscovery' of the Consolatio? In the following pages, I would like to reassess the evidence and the existing theories, in an attempt to suggest that a centre of learning like Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, better known as Fleury, appears to be more closely involved in the transmission and exegesis of the Boethian masterpiece than any centre connected with Alcuin (York, Saint-Martin of Tours, or the court school of Charlemagne). In the light of what we know about the circulation of Consolatio manuscripts, it is perhaps easier to demonstrate that Boethius' prodmetrum reached England through Carolingian Francia, rather than the other way round.

It is legitimate to believe that if anyone knew the Consolatio Philosophiae in Anglo-Saxon England before the time of Alcuin, the Venerable Bede did, for his learning far exceeds that of any other Anglo-Saxon scholar before or after him. (3) In his Books Known to Anglo-Latin Writers from Aldhelm to Alcuin, J. D. A. Ogilvy suggested that Bede was familiar with the Consolatio, (4) but he abandoned this opinion in later publications, (5) and acquiesced that Bede did not know any of Boethius' works. (6)

Nonetheless, this view was challenged by Fabio Troncarelli, author of invaluable studies about the circulation of Boethian manuscripts. In his Tradizioni perdute, Troncarelli puts up an entire scaffolding of arguments, trying to prove that the Consolatio was known in seventh- and eighth-century England, and that it started circulating in Europe due to the activity of insular scholars on the Continent. (7) The second point is easier to disprove, and can thus be addressed first. The Italian palaeographer believes that most authors who knew the Consolalio in the ninth century were of insular origin, or belonged to abbeys of insular foundation. (8) He quotes the names of Alcuin, the 'editorial patron' of the text, of Waldramus of St Gall, of Saxo, the author of the Annales de gestis Caroli Magni, and of Paschasius Radbertus, Sedulius Scotus, and John Scotus. Nonetheless, in addition to these, one may quote Theodulf and Jonas of Orleans, Modoinus of Auxerre, Walafrid Strabo, Lupus of Ferritres, Remigius of Auxerre, and many others who are not in the least of insular descent. Moreover, one must be reminded that all the insular scholars mentioned by Troncarelli were working on the Continent, and that in all likelihood they became acquainted with the Consolatio in the provinces where they were engaged in teaching and writing. Consequently, all one can say is that Carolingian scholars of Irish and British descent, among others, knew the Consolatio in the ninth century, and on the Continent. (9)

Troncarelli's main demonstration is based on a comparison of passages from the Consolatio to riddles by Tatwine and Aldhelm, and to Bede's De die iudidi.

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