Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Nature and Original Function of the Text of the Mystic Ark

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Nature and Original Function of the Text of the Mystic Ark

Article excerpt

While the likelihood that the editor was a commercial scribe may explain his lack of personal engagement with this spiritual text that was meant for group discussion, it does not explain why poor work in general was tolerated for The Mystic Ark-either the fairly mediocre first recension by a student of Saint Victor, or the truly inadequate second recension apparently by an outside scribe, neither of whom were models of their professions. The conclusion is inescapable that this was the case because The Mystic Ark was not considered to be a literary piece.

As to the first recension, it was a reportatio: the fact that it was not personally written by Hugh but by a student, whether internal or external, certainly put the work in a different category of editorial attention, however popular it was. But there is more to it, since the text was never given a proper title or, what is more, an explanatory preface.182 Regarding the second recension, the casual attitude toward it seems to be the result of the knowledge on the part of the editor that The Mystic Ark was a reportatio, and a flawed one at that; it was not by Hugh and need not be treated with the deference normally shown to the writing of a respected author. This attitude was not helped by an expansion of the work of the scriptorium from 1140 to 1150 so great that fully one-third of Saint Victor's twelfth-century manuscript collection was copied at this time (with a noticeable increase in the number of hands beginning in 1135),183 precisely the time during which I suggest the second recension was made.

But, again, the real reason that the text received only incidental editorial attention-and perhaps the principal reason that Hugh had allowed a student to write the reportatio in the first place rather than doing it himself-was that, by its very genre, it was not considered to be a literary piece, properly speaking.


In the manuscript tradition, whenever The Mystic Ark is found, it and the treatise of The Moral Ark virtually always accompany each other, although not in a consistent fashion.184 Sicard's second basic error of interpretation-as mentioned earlier, his failure to recognize the basically simple relationship between the painting of The Mystic Ark, the treatise of The Moral Ark, and the reportatio of The Mystic Ark-has caused him to further misinterpret the nature and original function of The Mystic Ark.

The evidence that the texts themselves offer is certainly not straightforward. I have already noted the confusion caused by the absence of an explanatory preface to The Mystic Ark. This lack of clarity has been greatly compounded by The Moral Ark, which in the manuscript tradition has no less than seven different closings that are repeated more than once, and an additional four unique closings. These have been recognized to one degree or another by a number of scholars, but most completely by Sicard.185 The original closing (ending in edificatam esse leteris) is the fullest; this is a proper ending that brings the writing to an overt close, but which does so by referring to the painting of The Mystic Ark-a painting that had been referred to earlier in The Moral Ark but that is not actually necessary at all for understanding this treatise and that plays only a very small part in it:

I was going to speak briefly, but I admit that I was glad to have had so much to say to you. And, in fact, there is still more that I might have said if I were not afraid of wearying you (fastidium non timerem). Therefore, let us now propose the exemplar of our Ark itself, as we have promised. This we have painted externally in order that you may learn from without what you ought to do within so that, when you have reproduced a form of this exemplar in your heart, you may rejoice that the house of God has been built within you (edificatam esse leferis). …

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