Vol.4, Chapter XIII. The State of Learning

134. Literature

Comp. the list of works in vol. II.

I. The ecclesiastical writers of this period are collected for the first time by Migne, the Greek in his Patrologia Graeca, Tom. 90 (Maximus Confessor) to 136 (Eustathius); the Latin in his Patrologia Latina, Tom. 69 (Cassiodorus) and 75 (Gregory I.) to 148 (Gregory VII.).

II. General works: Du Pin, Ceillier, and Cave, and the bibliographical works of Fabricius (Biblioth. Graeca, and Bibl. Latina); especially the Histoire Générale des auteurs sacrés ecclésiastiques by the Benedictine Dom Remy Ceillier (1688-1761), first ed., 1729-63, in 23 vols.; revised ed. by Abbé Bauzon, Paris, 1857-’62, in 14 vols. 4to. This ed. comes down to St. Bernard and Peter the Lombard. Tom. XI., XII. and XIII. cover the 6th century to the 11th.

A. H. L. Heeren (Prof. in Göttingen): Geschichte der classischen Literatur im Mittelalter. Göttingen, 1822. 2 Parts. The first part goes from the beginning of the Middle Age to the 15th century.

Henry Hallam: State of Europe in the Middle Ages. Ch. IX. (New York ed. of 1880, vol. III. 254 sqq.); and his Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries. Part I., Ch.1 (N. York ed. of 1880, vol. I., p. 25-103).

Hermann Reuter: Geschichte der relig. Aufklärung in Mittelalter. Berlin, 1875, 2 vols.

III. Special works.

(1) Learning and Literature in the East: Leo Allatius: Graeciae orthodoxae Scriptores. Rom., 1652-’59, 2 vols. The Byzantine Historians, ed. by Niebuhr and others, Gr. and Lat. Bonn, 1828-’78, 50 vols., 8vo. Monographs on Photius, especially Hergenröther (the third volume), and on John of Damascus by Langen (1879), etc.; in part also Gass: Symbolik der griech. Kirche (1872).

(2) Literature in the Latin church: Johann Christ. Felix Bähr: Geschichte der römischen Literatur. Carlsruhe, 1836 sqq.; 4th revised ed., 1868-’72, 4 vols. The 4th vol. embraces the Christian Roman literature to the age of Charlemagne. This formerly appeared in three supplementary vols., 1836, 1837 and 1840, the third under the title: Gesch. der röm. Lit. im karolingischen Zeitalter (619 pages). — Wilhelm S. Teuffel: Geschichte der römischen Literatur. Leipzig, 1870, 4th ed. edited by L. Schwabe, 1882. Closes with the middle of the eighth century. Adolph Ebert: Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelalters im Abendlande. Leipzig, 1874-’80, 2 vols.

Comp. also Léon Maitre: Les écoles episcopales et monastiques de l’occident depuis Charlemagne jusqu’ à Philippe-Auguste, 1866. H. Jos. Schmitz: Das Volksschulwesen im Mittelalter. Frankf a. M., 1881.

(3) For Italy: Muratori: Antiquitates italicae medii aevi (Mediol., 1738-’42, 6 vols. fol.), and Rerum italicarum Scriptores praecipui ab anno D. ad MD. (Mediol., 1723-’51, 29 vols. fol.). Tirabsoschi (a very learned Jesuit): Storia della letteratura italiana, antica e moderna. Modena, 177l-’82, and again 1787-’94; another ed. Milan, 1822-26, 16 vols. Gregorovius: Geschichte der Stadt Rom. im Mittelalter. Stuttgart, 1859 sqq., 3rd ed. 1874 sqq., 8 vols.

(4) For France: the Benedictine Histoire litteraire de la France. Paris, 1733-’63, 12 vols. 4to., continued by members of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 1814 sqq. — Bouquet: Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France. Paris, 1738-1865, 22 vols. fol.; new ed. 1867 sqq. Guizot: Histoire générale de la civilisation en Europe et en France depuis la chute de l’empire romain jusqu’ à la revolution française. Paris, 1830, 6 vols., and many editions, also two English translations. — Ozanam: La civilisation chrétienne chez les Francs. Paris, 1849.

(5) For Spain: The works of Isidore of Seville. Comp. Balmez: European Civilization, in Spanish, Barcelona, 1842-44, in 4 vols.; transl. into French and English (against Guizot and in the interest of Romanism).

(6) For England: The works and biographies of Bede, Alcuin, Alfred. Monumenta Historica Brittannica, ed. by Petrie, Sharpe, and Hardy. Lond., 1848 (the first vol. extends to the Norman conquest). Rerum Britannicarum medii xvi Scriptores, or Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain. London, 1858-1865, 55 vols. 8vo. Comp. J. R. Lumby: Greek Learning in the Western Church during the Seventh and Eighth Centuries. Cambridge, 1878.

(7) For Germany: The works and biographies of Bonifacius, Charlemagne, Rabanus Maurus. The Scriptores in the Monumenta Germaniae historica, ed. Pertz and others, Han., 1826 sqq. (from 500 to 1500); also in a small ed. Scriptores rer. Germ. in usum scholarum, 1840-1866, 16 vols. 8vo. Wilhelm Wattenbach: Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen im Mittelalter his zur Mitte des 13. Jahrhunderts. Berlin, 1858, 4th ed., 1877-’78, 2 vols.

(8) On the era of Charlemagne in particular: J. J. Ampere: Histoire littéraire de la France avant Charlemagne (second ed., 1867, 2 vols.), and Histoire litteraire de la France sous Charlemagne et durant les Xe et XIe siècles. Paris, 1868. — Bähr: De litter. studiis a Carolo M. revocatis ac schola Palatina. Heidelb., 1856. — J. Bass Mullinger: The Schools of Charles the Great, and the Restoration of Education in the Ninth Century. London, 1877. — Ebert: Die liter. Bewegung zur Zeit Karls des Gr., in “Deutsche Rundschau,” XI. 1877. Comp. also Rettberg: Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands, I. 427 sqq., and the works quoted on p. 236. The poetry of the Carolingian age is collected in two magnificent volumes by E. Dümmler.: Poëtae Latini Aevi Carolini. Berlin, 2 vols. in 3 parts, 1880-’84 (in the Scriptorum series of the Mon. Germania).


135. Literary Character of the Early Middle Ages

The prevailing character of this period in sacred learning is a faithful traditionalism which saved the remains of the ancient classical and Christian literature, and transferred them to a new soil. The six centuries which intervene between the downfall of the West Roman Empire (476) and the age of Hildebrand (1049-1085), are a period of transition from an effete heathen to a new Christian civilization, and from patristic to scholastic theology. It was a period of darkness with the signs of approaching daylight. The fathers were dead, and the schoolmen were not yet born. The best that could be done was to preserve the inheritance of the past for the benefit of the future. The productive power was exhausted, and gave way to imitation and compilation. Literary industry took the place of independent investigation.

The Greek church kept up the connection with classical and patristic learning, and adhered closely to the teaching of the Nicene fathers and the seven ecumenical councils. The Latin church bowed before the authority of St. Augustin and St. Jerome. The East had more learning; the West had more practical energy, which showed itself chiefly in the missionary field. The Greek church, with her head turned towards the past, tenaciously maintains to this day the doctrinal position of the eighth century; the Latin church, looking to the future, passed through a deep night of ignorance, but gathered new strength from new blood. The Greek church presents ancient Christianity at rest; while the Latin church of the middle ages is Christianity in motion towards the modern era.


136. Learning in the Eastern Church

The Eastern church had the advantage over the Western in the knowledge of the Greek language, which gave her direct access to the Greek Testament, the Greek classics, and the Greek fathers; but, on the other hand, she had to suffer from the Mohammedan invasions, and from the intrigues and intermeddling of a despotic court.

The most flourishing seats of patristic learning, Alexandria and Antioch, were lost by the conquests of Islam. The immense library at Alexandria was burned by order of Omar (638), who reasoned: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God (the Koran), they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.” In the eighth century, however, the Saracens themselves began to cultivate learning, to translate Greek authors, to collect large libraries in Bagdad, Cairo, and Cordova. The age of Arabic learning continued about five hundred years, till the irruption of the Moguls. It had a stimulating effect upon the scholarship of the church, especially upon the development of scholastic philosophy, through the writings of Averroës of Cordova (d. 1198), the translator and commentator of Aristotle.

Constantinople was the centre of the literary, activity of the Greek church during the middle ages. Here or in the immediate vicinity (Chalcedon, Nicaea) the ecumenical councils were held; here were the scholars, the libraries, the imperial patronage, and all the facilities for the prosecution of studies. Many a library was destroyed, but always replaced again. Thessalonica and Mount Athos were also important seats of learning, especially in the twelfth century.

The Latin was the official language of the Byzantine court, and Justinian, who regained, after a divorce of sixty years, the dominion of ancient Rome through the valor of Belisarius (536), asserted the proud title of Emperor of the Romans, and published his code of laws in Latin. But the Greek always was and remained the language of the people, of literature, philosophy, and theology.

Classical learning revived in the ninth century under the patronage of the court. The reigns of Caesar Bardas (860-866), Basilius I. the Macedonian (867-886), Leo VI. the Philosopher (886-911), who was himself an author, Constantine VII. Porphyrogenitus (911-959), likewise an author, mark the most prosperous period of Byzantine literature. The family of the Comneni, who upheld the power of the sinking empire from 1057 to 1185, continued the literary patronage, and the Empress Eudocia and the Princess Anna Comnena cultivated the art of rhetoric and the study of philosophy.

Even during the confusion of the crusades and the disasters which overtook the empire, the love for learning continued; and when Constantinople at last fell into the hands of the Turks, Greek scholarship took refuge in the West, kindled the renaissance, and became an important factor in the preparation for the Reformation.

The Byzantine literature presents a vast mass of learning without an animating, controlling and organizing genius. “The Greeks of Constantinople,” says Gibbon, with some rhetorical exaggeration, “held in their lifeless hands the riches of the fathers, without inheriting the spirit which had created and improved that sacred patrimony: they read, they praised, they compiled; but their languid souls seemed alike incapable of thought and action. In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity; and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Not a single composition of history, philosophy or literature has been saved from oblivion by the intrinsic beauties of style or sentiment, of original fancy, and even of successful imitation …. The leaders of the Greek church were humbly content to admire and copy the oracles of antiquity, nor did the schools or pulpit produce any rivals of the fame of Athanasius and Chrysostom.”

The theological controversies developed dialectical skill, a love for metaphysical subtleties, and an over-estimate of theoretical orthodoxy at the expense of practical piety. The Monotheletic controversy resulted in an addition to the christological creed; the iconoclastic controversy determined the character of public worship and the relation of religion to art.

The most gifted Eastern divines were Maximus Confessor in the seventh, John of Damascus in the eighth, and Photius in the ninth century. Maximus, the hero of Monotheletism, was an acute and profound thinker, and the first to utilize the pseudo-Dyonysian philosophy in support of a mystic orthodoxy. John of Damascus, the champion of image-worship, systematized the doctrines of the orthodox fathers, especially the three great Cappadocians, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzum, and Gregory of Nyssa, and produced a monumental work on theology which enjoys to this day the same authority in the Greek church as the “Summa” of Thomas Aquinas in the Latin. Photius, the antagonist of Pope Nicolas, was the greatest scholar of his age, who read and digested with independent judgment all ancient heathen and Christian books on philology, philosophy, theology, canon law, history, medicine, and general literature. In extent of information and fertility of pen he had a successor in Michael Psellus (d. 1106).

Exegesis was cultivated by Oecumenius in the tenth, Theophylact in the eleventh, and Euthymius Zygabenus in the twelfth century. They compiled the valuable exegetical collections called “Catenae.” Simeon Metaphrastes (about 900) wrote legendary biographies and eulogies of one hundred and twenty-two saints. Suidas, in the eleventh century, prepared a Lexicon, which contains much valuable philological and historical information The Byzantine historians, Theophanes, Syncellus, Cedrenus, Leo Grammaticus, and others, describe the political and ecclesiastical events of the slowly declining empire. The most eminent scholar of the twelfth century, was Eustathius, Archbishop of Thessalonica, best known as the commentator of Homer, but deserving a high place also as a theologian, ecclesiastical ruler, and reformer of monasticism.


137. Christian Platonism and the Pseudo-Dionysian Writings


I. Best ed. of Pseudo-Dionysius in Greek and Latin by Balthasar Corderius (Jesuit), Antwerp, 1634; reprinted at Paris, 1644; Venice, 1755; Brixiae, 1854; and by Migne, in “Patrol. Gr.,” Tom. III. and IV., Paris, 1857, with the scholia of Pachymeres, St. Maximus, and various dissertations on the life and writings of Dionysius. French translations by Darboy (1845), and Dulac (1865). German transl. by Engelhardt (see below). An English transl. of the Mystical Theology in Everard’s Gospel Treasures, London, 1653.

II. Older treatises by Launoy: De Areopagiticis Hilduini (Paris, 1641); and De duabus Dionysiis (Par., 1660). Père Sirmond: Dissert. in qua ostenditur Dion. Paris. et Dion. Areop. discrimen (Par., 1641). J. Daillé: De scriptis quo sub Dionys. Areop. et Ignatii Antioch. nominibus circumferuntur (Geneva, 1666, reproduced by Engelhardt).

III. Engelhardt: Die angeblichen Schriften des Areop. Dion. übersetzt und mit Abhandl. begleitet (Sulzbach, 1823); De Dion. Platonizante (Erlangen, 1820); and De Origine script. Dion. Areop. (Erlangen, 1823). Vogt: Neuplatonismus und Christenthum. Berlin, 1836. G. A. Meyer: Dionys. Areop. Halle, 1845. L. Montet: Les livres du Pseudo-Dionys., 1848. Neander: III. 169 sqq.; 466 sq. Gieseler: I. 468; II. 103 sq. Baur: Gesch. der Lehre v. der Dreieinigkeit und Menschwerdung Gottes, II. 251-263. Dorner: Entw. Gesch. der L. v. d. Pers. Christi, II. 196-203. Fr. Hipler: Dionys. der Areopagite. Regensb., 1861. E. Böhmer: Dion. Areop., 1864. Westcott: Dion. Areop. in the “Contemp. Review” for May, 1867 (with good translations of characteristic passages). Joh. Niemeyer: Dion. Areop. doctrina philos. et theolog. Halle, 1869. Dean Colet: On the Hierarchies of Dionysius. 1869. J. Fowler: On St. Dion. in relation to Christian Art, in the “Sacristy,” Febr., 1872. Kanakis: Dionys. der Areop. nach seinem Character als Philosoph. Leipz., 1881. Möller in “Herzog”2 III. 617 sqq.; and Lupton in “Smith & Wace,” I. 841 sqq. Comp. the Histories of Philosophy by Ritter, II. 514 sqq., and Ueberweg (Am. ed.), II. 349-352.


The Real and the Fictitious Dionysius

The tendency to mystic speculation was kept up and nourished chiefly through the writings which exhibit a fusion of Neo-Platonism and Christianity, and which go under the name of Dionysius Areopagita, the distinguished Athenian convert of St. Paul (Act_17:34). He was, according to a tradition of the second century, the first bishop of Athens. In the ninth century, when the French became acquainted with his supposed writings, he was confounded with St. Denis, the first bishop of Paris and patron saint of France, who lived and died about two hundred years after the Areopagite. He thus became, by a glaring anachronism, the connecting link between Athens and Paris, between Greek philosophy and Christian theology, and acquired an almost apostolic authority. He furnishes one of the most remarkable examples of the posthumous influence of unknown authorship and of the power of the dead over the living. For centuries he was regarded as the prince of theologians. He represented to the Greek and Latin church the esoteric wisdom of the gospel, and the mysterious harmony between faith and reason and between the celestial and terrestrial hierarchy.

Pseudo-Dionysius is a philosophical counterpart of Pseudo-Isidor: both are pious frauds in the interest of the catholic system, the one with regard to theology, the other with regard to church polity; both reflect the uncritical character of medieval Christianity; both derived from the belief in their antiquity a fictitious importance far beyond their intrinsic merits. Doubts were entertained of the genuineness of the Areopagitica by Laurentius Valla, Erasmus, and Cardinal Cajetan; but it was only in the seventeenth century that the illusion of the identity of Pseudo-Dionysius with the apostolic convert and the patron-saint of France was finally dispelled by the torch of historical criticism. Since that time his writings have lost their authority and attraction; but they will always occupy a prominent place among the curiosities of literature, and among the most remarkable systems of mystic philosophy.



Who is the real author of those productions? The writer is called simply Dionysius, and only once. He repeatedly mentions an unknown Hierotheos, as his teacher; but he praises also “the divine Paul,” as the spiritual guide of both, and addresses persons who bear apostolic names, as Timothy, Titus, Caius, Polycarp, and St. John. He refers to a visit he made with Hierotheos, and with James, the brother of the Lord (ἀδελφόθεος), and Peter, “the chief and noblest head of the inspired apostles,” to gaze upon the (dead) body of her (Mary) who was “the beginning of life and the recipient of God;” on which occasion Hierotheos gave utterance to their feelings in ecstatic hymns. It is evident then that he either lived in the apostolic age and its surroundings, or that he transferred himself back in imagination to that age. The former alternative is impossible. The inflated style, the reference to later persons (as Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria), the acquaintance with Neo-Platonic ideas, the appeal to the “old tradition” (ἀρχαῖα παράδοσις) of the church as well as the Scriptures, and the elaborate system of church polity and ritual which he presupposes, clearly prove his post-apostolic origin. He was not known to Eusebius or Jerome or any ecclesiastical author before 533. In that year his writings were first mentioned in a conference between orthodox bishops and heretical Severians at Constantinople under Justinian I. The Severians quoted them as an authority for their Monophysitic Christology and against the Council of Chalcedon; and in reply to the objection that they were unknown, they asserted that Cyril of Alexandria had used them against the Nestorians. If this be so, they must have existed before 444, when Cyril died; but no trace can be found in Cyril’s writings. On the other hand, Dionysius presupposes the christological controversies of the fifth century, and shows a leaning to Monophysitic views, and a familiarity with the last and best representatives of Neo-Platonism, especially with Proclus, who died in Athens, a.d. 485. The resemblance is so strong that the admirers of Dionysius charged Proclus with plagiarism. The writer then was a Christian Neo-Platonist who wrote towards the close of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century in Greece or in Egypt, and who by a literary fiction clothed his religious speculations with the name and authority of the first Christian bishop of Athens.

In the same way the pseudo-Clementine writings were assigned to the first bishop of Rome.


The Fortunes of Pseudo-Dionysius

Pseudo-Dionysius appears first in the interest of the heretical doctrine of one nature and one will in the person of Christ. But he soon commended himself even more to orthodox theologians. He was commented on by Johannes Scythopolitanus in the sixth century, and by St. Maximus Confessor in the seventh. John of Damascus often quotes him as high authority. Even Photius, who as a critic doubted the genuineness, numbers him among the great church teachers and praises his depth of thought.

In the West the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius were first noticed about 590 by Pope Gregory I., who probably became acquainted with them while ambassador at Constantinople. Pope Hadrian I. mentions them in a letter to Charlemagne. The Emperor Michael II. the Stammerer, sent a copy to Louis the Pious, 827. Their arrival at St. Denis on the eve of the feast of the saint who reposed there, was followed by no less than nineteen miraculous cures in the neighborhood. They naturally recalled the memory of the patron-saint of France, and were traced to his authorship. The emperor instructed Hilduin, the abbot of St. Denis, to translate them into Latin; but his scholarship was not equal to the task. John Scotus Erigena, the best Greek scholar in the West, at the request of Charles the Bald, prepared a literal translation with comments, about 850, and praised the author as “venerable alike for his antiquity and for the sublimity of the heavenly mysteries” with which he dealt. Pope Nicolas I. complained that the work had not been sent to him for approval,” according to the custom of the church” (861); but a few years later Anastasius, the papal librarian, highly commended it (c. 865).

The Areopagitica stimulated an intuitive and speculative bent of mind, and became an important factor in the development of scholastic and mystic theology. Hugo of St. Victor, Peter the Lombard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste, and Dionysius Carthusianus wrote commentaries on them, and drew from them inspiration for their own writings. The Platonists of the Italian renaissance likewise were influenced by them.

Dante places Dionysius among the theologians in the heaven of the sun:

“Thou seest next the lustre of that taper,

Which in the flesh below looked most within

The angelic nature and its ministry.”

Luther called him a dreamer, and this was one of his heretical views which the Sorbonne of Paris condemned.


The Several Writings

The Dionysian writings, as far as preserved, are four treatises addressed to Timothy, his “fellow-presbyter,” namely: 1) On the Celestial Hierarchy (περὶ τῆς οὐρανίας ἱεραρχίας). 2) On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (περὶ τῆς ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ἱεραρχίας). 3) On the Divine Names (περὶ θείων ὀνομάτων). 4) On Mystic Theology (περὶ μυστικῆς θεολογίας). To these are added ten letters addressed to various persons of the apostolic age.


The System of Dionysius

These books reveal the same authorship and the same system of mystic symbolism, in which Neo-Platonism and Christianity are interwoven. The last phase of Hellenic philosophy which heretofore had been hostile to the church, is here made subservient to it. The connecting ideas are the progressive revelation of the infinite, the hierarchic triads, the negative conception of evil, and the striving of man after mystic union with the transcendent God. The system is a counterpart of the Graeco-Jewish theology, of Philo of Alexandria, who in similar manner mingled the Platonic philosophy with the Mosaic religion. The Areopagite and Philo teach theology in the garb of philosophy; both appeal to Scripture, tradition, and reason; both go behind the letter of the Bible and the facts of history to a deeper symbolic and allegoric meaning; both adulterate the revealed truths by foreign elements. But Philo is confined to the Old Testament, and ignores the New, which was then not yet written; while the system of the Areopagite is a sort of philosophy of Christianity.

The Areopagite reverently ascends the heights and sounds the depths of metaphysical and religious speculation, and makes the impression of profound insight and sublime spirituality; and hence he exerted such a charm upon the great schoolmen and mystics of the middle ages. But he abounds in repetitions; he covers the poverty of thought with high-sounding phrases; he uses the terminology of the Hellenic mysteries; and his style is artificial, turgid, involved, and monotonous.

The unity of the Godhead and the hierarchical order of the universe are the two leading ideas of the Areopagite. He descends from the divine unity through a succession of manifestations to variety, and ascends back again to mystic union with God. His text, we may say, is the sentence of St. Paul: “From God, and through God, and unto God, are all things” (Rom_11:36).

He starts from the Neo-Platonic conception of the Godhead, as a being which transcends all being and existence and yet is the beginning and the end of all existence, as unknowable and yet the source of all reason and knowledge, as nameless and inexpressible and yet giving names to all things, as a simple unity and yet causing all variety. He describes God as “a unity of three persons, who with his loving providence penetrates to all things, from super-celestial essences to the last things of earth, as being the beginning and cause of all beings, beyond all beginning, and enfolding all things transcendentally in his infinite embrace.” If we would know God, we must go out of ourselves and become absorbed in Him. All being proceeds from God by a sort of emanation, and tends upward to him.

The world forms a double hierarchy, that is, as he defines it, “a holy order, and science, and activity or energy, assimilated as far as possible to the godlike and elevated to the imitation of God in proportion to the divine illuminations conceded to it.” There are two hierarchies, one in heaven, and one on earth, each with three triadic degrees.

The celestial or supermundane hierarchy consists of angelic beings in three orders: 1) thrones, cherubim, and seraphim, in the immediate presence of God; 2) powers, mights, and dominions; 3) angels (in the narrower sense), archangels, and principalities. The first order is illuminated, purified and perfected by God, the second order by the first, the third by the second.

The earthly or ecclesiastical hierarchy is a reflex of the heavenly, and a school to train us up to the closest possible communion with God. Its orders form the lower steps of the heavenly ladder which reaches in its summit to the throne of God. It requires sensible symbols or sacraments, which, like the parables of our Lord, serve the double purpose of revealing the truth to the holy and hiding it from the profane. The first and highest triad of the ecclesiastical hierarchy are the sacraments of baptism which is called illumination (φώτισμα), the eucharist (σύναξις, gathering, communion), which is the most sacred of consecrations, and the holy unction or chrism which represents our perfecting. Three other sacraments are mentioned: the ordination of priests, the consecration of monks, and the rites of burial, especially the anointing of the dead. The three orders of the ministry form the second triad. The third triad consists of monks, the holy laity, and the catechumens.

These two hierarchies with their nine-fold orders of heavenly and earthly ministrations are, so to speak, the machinery of God’s government and of his self-communication to man. They express the divine law of subordination and mutual dependence of the different ranks of beings.

The Divine Names or attributes, which are the subject of a long treatise, disclose to us through veils and shadows the fountain-head of all life and light, thought and desire. The goodness, the beauty, and the loveliness of God shine forth upon all created things, like the rays of the sun, and attract all to Himself. How then can evil exist? Evil is nothing real and positive, but only a negation, a defect. Cold is the absence of heat, darkness is the absence of light; so is evil the absence, of goodness. But how then can God punish evil? For the answer to this question the author refers to another treatise which is lost.

The Mystic Theology briefly shows the way by which the human soul ascends to mystic union with God as previously set forth under the Divine Names. The soul now rises above signs and symbols, above earthly conceptions and definitions to the pure knowledge and intuition of God.

Dionysius distinguishes between cataphatic or affirmative theology, and apophatic or negative theology. The former descends from the infinite God, as the unity of all names, to the finite and manifold; the latter ascends from the finite and manifold to God, until it reaches that height of sublimity where it becomes completely passive, its voice is stilled, and man is united with the nameless, unspeakable, super-essential Being of Beings.

The ten Letters treat of separate theological or moral topics, and are addressed, four to Caius, a monk (θεραπεύτης), one to Dorotheus, a deacon (λειτουργός), one to Sosipater, a priest (ἱερεύς), one to Demophilus, a monk, one to Polycarp (called ἱεράρχης, no doubt the well-known bishop of Smyrna), one to Titus (ἱεράρχης, bishop of Crete), and the tenth to John, “the theologian,” i.e. the Apostle John at Patmos, foretelling his future release from exile.


Dionysian Legends

Two legends of the Pseudo-Dionysian writings have passed in exaggerated forms into Latin Breviaries and other books of devotion. One is his gathering with the apostles around the death-bed of the Virgin Mary. The other is the exclamation of Dionysius when he witnessed at Heliopolis in Egypt the miraculous solar eclipse at the time of the crucifixion: “Either the God of nature is suffering, or He sympathizes with a suffering God.” No such sentence occurs in the writings of Dionysius as his own utterance; but a similar one is attributed by him to the sophist Apollophanes, his fellow-student at Heliopolis.

The Roman Breviary has given solemn sanction, for devotional purposes, to several historical errors connected with Dionysius the Areopagite: 1) his identity with the French St. Denis of the third century; 2) his authorship of the books upon “The Names of God,” upon “The Orders in Heaven and in the Church,” upon “The Mystic Theology,” and “divers others,” which cannot have been written before the end of the fifth century; 3) his witness of the supernatural eclipse at the time of the crucifixion, and his exclamation just referred to, which he himself ascribes to Apollophanes. The Breviary also relates that Dionysius was sent by Pope Clement of Rome to Gaul with Rusticus, a priest, and Eleutherius, a deacon; that he was tortured with fire upon a grating, and beheaded with an axe on the 9th day of October in Domitian’s reign, being over a hundred years old, but that “after his head was cut off, he took it in his hands and walked two hundred paces, carrying it all the while!”


138. Prevailing Ignorance in the Western Church

The ancient Roman civilization began to decline soon after the reign of the Antonines, and was overthrown at last by the Northern barbarians. The treasures of literature and art were buried, and a dark night settled over Europe. The few scholars felt isolated and sad. Gregory, of Tours (540-594) complains, in the Preface to his Church History of the Franks, that the study of letters had nearly perished from Gaul, and that no man could be found who was able to commit to writing the events of the times.

“Middle Ages” and “Dark Ages” have become synonymous terms. The tenth century is emphatically called the iron age, or the saeculum obscurum. The seventh and eighth were no better. Corruption of morals went hand in hand with ignorance. It is re-ported that when the papacy had sunk to the lowest depth of degradation, there was scarcely a person in Rome who knew the first elements of letters. We hear complaints of priests who did not know even the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. If we judge by the number of works, the seventh, eighth and tenth centuries were the least productive; the ninth was the most productive; there was a slight increase of productiveness in the eleventh over the tenth, a much greater one in the twelfth, but again a decline in the thirteenth century.

But we must not be misled by isolated facts into sweeping generalities. For England and Germany the tenth century was in advance of the ninth. In France the eighth and ninth centuries produced the seeds of a new culture which were indeed covered by winter frosts, but not destroyed, and which bore abundant fruit in the eleventh and twelfth.

Secular and sacred learning was confined to the clergy and the monks. The great mass of the laity, including the nobility, could neither read nor write, and most contracts were signed with the mark of the cross. Even the Emperor Charlemagne wrote only with difficulty. The people depended for their limited knowledge on the teaching of a poorly educated priesthood. But several emperors and kings, especially Charlemagne and Alfred, were liberal patrons of learning and even contributors to literature.


Scarcity of Libraries

One of the chief causes of the prevailing ignorance was the scarcity of books. The old libraries were destroyed by ruthless barbarians and the ravages of war. After the conquest of Alexandria by the Saracens, the cultivation and exportation of Egyptian papyrus ceased, and parchment or vellum, which took its place, was so expensive that complete copies of the Bible cost as much as a palace or a farm. King Alfred paid eight acres of land for one volume of a cosmography. Hence the custom of chaining valuable books, which continued even to the sixteenth century. Hence also the custom of erasing the original text of manuscripts of classical works, to give place to worthless monkish legends and ascetic homilies. Even the Bible was sometimes submitted to this process, and thus “the word of God was made void by the traditions of men.”

The libraries of conventual and cathedral schools were often limited to half a dozen or a dozen volumes, such as a Latin Bible or portions of it, the liturgical books, some works of St. Augustin and St. Gregory, Cassiodorus and Boëthius, the grammars of Donatus and Priscianus, the poems of Virgil and Horace. Most of the books had to be imported from Italy, especially from Rome.

The introduction of cotton paper in the tenth or eleventh century, and of linen paper in the twelfth, facilitated the multiplication of books.


139. Educational Efforts of the Church

The medieval church is often unjustly charged with hostility to secular learning. Pope Gregory I. is made responsible for the destruction of the Bibliotheca Palatina and the classical statues in Rome. But this rests on an unreliable tradition of very late date. Gregory was himself, next to Isidore of Seville (on whom he conferred the pall, in 599), the best scholar and most popular writer of his age, and is lauded by his biographers and Gregory of Tours as a patron of learning. If he made some disparaging remarks about Latin grammar and syntax, in two letters addressed to bishops, they must be understood as a protest against an overestimate of these lower studies and of heathen writers, as compared with higher episcopal duties, and with that allegorical interpretation of the Bible which he carried to arbitrary excess in his own exposition of Job. In the Commentary on Kings ascribed to him, he commends the study of the liberal arts as a useful and necessary means for the proper understanding of the Scriptures, and refers in support to the examples of Moses, Isaiah, and St. Paul. We may say then that he was an advocate of learning and art, but in subordination and subserviency to the interests of the Catholic church. This has been the attitude of the papal chair ever since.

The preservation and study of ancient literature during the entire medieval period are due chiefly to the clergy and monks, and a few secular rulers. The convents were the nurseries of manuscripts.

The connection with classical antiquity was never entirely broken. Boëthius (beheaded at Pavia, c. 525), and Cassiodorus (who retired to the monastery, of Viviers, and died there about 570), both statesmen under Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king of Italy, form the connecting links between ancient and medieval learning. They were the last of the old Romans; they dipped the pen of Cicero and Seneca in barbaric ink, and stimulated the rising energies of the Romanic and Germanic nations: Boëthius by his “Consolation of Philosophy” (written in prison), Cassiodorus by his encyclopedic “Institutes of Divine Letters,” a brief introduction to the profitable study of the Holy Scriptures. The former looked back to Greek philosophy; the latter looked forward to Christian theology. The influence of their writings was enhanced by the scarcity of books beyond their intrinsic merits.

Boëthius has had the singular fortune of enjoying the reputation of a saint and martyr who was put to death, not for alleged political treason, but for defending orthodoxy against the Arianism of Theodoric. He is assigned by Dante to the fourth heaven in company with Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Gratian, Peter the Lombard, Dionysius the Areopagite, and other great teachers of the church:

“The saintly soul that maketh manifest

The world’s deceitfulness to all who hear well,

Is feasting on the sight of every good.

The body, whence it was expelled, is lying

Down in Cieldauro, and from martyrdom

And exile rose the soul to such a peace.”

And yet it is doubtful whether Boëthius was a Christian at all. He was indeed intimate with Cassiodorus and lived in a Christian atmosphere, which accounts for the moral elevation of his philosophy. But, if we except a few Christian phrases, his “Consolation” might almost have been written by a noble heathen of the school of Plato or Seneca. It is an echo of Greek philosophy; it takes an optimistic view of life; it breathes a beautiful spirit of resignation and hope, and derives comfort from a firm belief in God; in an all-ruling providence, and in prayer, but is totally silent about Christ and his gospel. It is a dialogue partly in prose and partly in verse between the author and philosophy in the garb of a dignified woman (who acts as his celestial guide, like Dante’s Beatrice). The work enjoyed an extraordinary popularity throughout the middle ages, and was translated into several languages, Greek, Old High German (by Notker of St. Gall), Anglo-Saxon (by King Alfred), Norman English (by Chaucer), French (by Meun), and Hebrew (by Ben Banshet). Gibbon admires it all the more for its ignoring Christianity, and calls it “a golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully, but which claims incomparable merit from the barbarism of the times and the situation of the author. The celestial guide whom he had so long invoked at Rome and Athens, now condescended to illumine his dungeon, to revive his courage, and to pour into his wounds her salutary balm …. From the earth Boëthius ascended to heaven in search of the Supreme Good; explored the metaphysical labyrinth of chance and destiny, of prescience and freewill, of time and eternity; and generously attempted to reconcile the perfect attributes of Deity with the apparent disorders of his moral and physical government.”


Greek and Hebrew Learning

The original languages of the Scriptures were little understood in the West. The Latin took the place of the Greek as a literary and sacred language, and formed a bond of union among scholars of different nationalities. As a spoken language it rapidly degenerated under the influx of barbaric dialects, but gave birth in the course of time to the musical Romanic languages of Southern Europe.

The Hebrew, which very few of the fathers (Origen and Jerome) had understood, continued to live in the Synagogue, and among eminent Jewish grammarians and commentators of the Old Testament; but it was not revived in the Christian Church till shortly before the Reformation. Very few of the divines of our period (Isidore, and, perhaps, Scotus Erigena), show any trace of Hebrew learning.

The Greek, which had been used almost exclusively, even by writers of the Western church, till the time of Tertullian and Cyprian, gave way to the Latin. Hence the great majority of Western divines could not read even the New Testament in the original. Pope Gregory did not know Greek, although he lived several years as papal ambassador in Constantinople. The same is true of most of the schoolmen down to the sixteenth century.

But there were not a few honorable exceptions. The Monotheletic and Iconoclastic controversies brought the Greek and the Latin churches into lively contact. The conflict between Photius and Nicolas stimulated Latin divines to self-defence.

As to Italy, the Greek continued to be spoken in the Greek colonies in Calabria and Sicily down to the eleventh century. Boëthius was familiar with the Greek philosophers. Cassiodorus often gives the Greek equivalents for Latin technical terms.

Several popes of this period were Greeks by birth, as Theodore I. (642), John VI. (701), John VII. (705), Zachary (741); while others were Syrians, as John V. (685), Sergius I. (687), Sisinnius (708), Constantine I. (708), Gregory III. (731). Zachary translated Gregory’s “Dialogues” from Latin into Greek. Pope Paul I. (757-768) took pains to spread a knowledge of Greek and sent several Greek books, including a grammar, some works of Aristotle, and Dionysius the Areopagite, to King Pepin of France. He provided Greek service for several monks who had been banished from the East by the iconoclastic emperor Copronymus. Anastasius, librarian of the Vatican, translated the canons of the eighth general Council of Constantinople (869) into Latin by order of Pope Hadrian II.

Isidore of Seville (d. 636) mentions a learned Spanish bishop, John of Gerona, who in his youth had studied seven years in Constantinople. He himself quotes in his “Etymologies” from many Greek authors, and is described as “learned in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.”

Ireland was for a long time in advance of England, and sent learned missionaries to the sister island as well as to the Continent. That Greek was not unknown there, is evident from Scotus Erigena.

England derived her knowledge of Greek from Archbishop Theodore, who was a native of Tarsus, educated in Athens and appointed by the pope to the see of Canterbury (a.d. 668). He and his companion Hadrian, an Italian abbot of African descent, spread Greek learning among the clergy. Bede says that some of their disciples were living in his day who were as well versed in Greek and Latin as in their native Saxon. Among these must be mentioned Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne, and Tobias, bishop of Rochester (d. 726). The Venerable Bede (d. 735) gives evidence of Greek knowledge in his commentaries, his references to a Greek Codex of the Acts of the Apostles, and especially in his book on the Art of Poetry. In France, Greek began to be studied under Charles the Great. Alcuin (d. 804) brought some knowledge of it from his native England, but his references may all have been derived from Jerome and Cassiodorus. Paulus Diaconus frequently uses Greek words. Charlemagne himself learned Greek, and the Libri Carolini show a familiarity with the details of the image-controversy of the Greek Church. His sister Giesela, who was abbess of Challes near Paris, uses a few Greek words in Latin letters, in her correspondence with Alcuin, though these may have been derived from the Latin.

The greatest Greek scholar of the ninth century, and of the whole period in the West was John Scotus Erigena (850), who was of Irish birth and education, but lived in France at the court of Charles the Bald. He displays his knowledge in his Latin books, translated the pseudo-Dionysian writings, and attempted original Greek composition.

In Germany, Rabanus Maurus, Haymo of Halberstadt, and Walafrid Strabo had some knowledge of Greek, but not sufficient to be of any material use in the interpretation of the Scriptures.


The Course of Study

Education was carried on in the cathedral and conventual schools, and these prepared the way for the Universities which began to be founded in the twelfth century.

The course of secular learning embraced the so-called seven liberal arts, namely, grammar, dialectics (logic), rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The first three constituted the Trivium, the other four the Quadrivium. Seven, three, and four were all regarded as sacred numbers. The division is derived from St. Augustin, and was adopted by Boëthius and Cassiodorus. The first and most popular compend of the middle ages was the book of Cassiodorus, De Septem Disciplinis.

These studies were preparatory to sacred learning, which was based upon the Latin Bible and the Latin fathers.


The Chief Theologians

A few divines embraced all the secular and religious knowledge of their age. In Spain, Isidore of Seville (d. 636) was the most learned man at the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh century. His twenty books of “Origins” or “Etymologies” embrace the entire contents of the seven liberal arts, together with theology, jurisprudence, medicine, natural history, etc., and show familiarity with Plato, Aristotle, Boëthius, Demosthenes, Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Anacreon, Herodotus, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, Juvenal, Caesar, Livy, Sallust. The Venerable Bede occupied the same height of encyclopaedic knowledge a century later. Alcuin was the leading divine of the Carolingian age. From his school proceeded Rabanus Maurus, the founder of learning and higher education in Germany. Scotus Erigena (d. about 877) was a marvel not only of learning, but also of independent thought, in the reign of Charles the Bald, and showed, by prophetic anticipation, the latent capacity of the Western church for speculative theology. With Berengar and Lanfranc, in the middle of the eleventh century, dialectical skill was applied in opposing and defending the dogma of transubstantiation. The doctrinal controversies about adoptionism, predestination, and the real presence stimulated the study of the Scriptures and of the fathers, and kept alive the intellectual activity.


Biblical Studies

The literature of the Latin church embraced penitential books, homilies, annals, translations, compilations, polemic discussions, and commentaries. The last are the most important, but fall far below the achievements of the fathers and reformers.

Exegesis was cultivated in an exclusively practical and homiletical spirit and aim by Gregory the Great, Isidore, Bede, Alcuin, Claudius of Turin, Paschasius Radbertus, Rabanus Maurus, Haymo, Walafrid Strabo, and others. The Latin Vulgate was the text, and the Greek or Hebrew seldom referred to. Augustin and Jerome were the chief sources. Charlemagne felt the need of a revision of the corrupt text of the Vulgate, and entrusted Alcuin with the task. The theory of a verbal inspiration was generally accepted, and opposed only by Agobard of Lyons who confined inspiration to the sense and the arguments, but not to the “ipsa corporalia verba.”

The favorite mode of interpretation was the spiritual, that is, allegorical and mystical. The literal, that is, grammatico-historical exegesis was neglected. The spiritual interpretation was again divided into three ramifications: the allegorical proper, the moral, and the anagogical corresponding to the three cardinal virtues of the Christian: the first refers to faith (credenda), the second to practice or charity (agenda), the third to hope (speranda, desideranda). Thus Jerusalem means literally or historically, the city in Palestine; allegorically, the church; morally, the believing soul; anagogically, the heavenly Jerusalem. The fourfold sense was expressed in the memorial verse:

“Litera Gesta docet; quid Credas, Allegoria;

Moralis, quid Agas; quo Tendas, Anagogia.”



St. Eucherius, bishop of Lyons, who was first (like Cyprian, and Ambrose) a distinguished layman, and father of four children, before he became a monk, and then a bishop, wrote in the middle of the fifth century (he died c. 450) a brief manual of medieval hermeneutics under the title Liber Formularum Spiritalis Intelligentiae (Rom., 1564, etc., in Migne’s “Patrol.” Tom. 50, col. 727-772). This work is often quoted by Bede and is sometimes erroneously ascribed to him. Eucherius shows an extensive knowledge of the Bible and a devout spirit. He anticipates many favorite interpretations of medieval commentators and mystics. He vindicates the allegorical method from the Scripture itself, and from its use of anthropomorphic and anthropopathic expressions which can not be understood literally. Yet he allows the literal sense its proper place in history as well as the moral and mystical. He identifies the Finger of God (Digitus Dei) with the Spirit of God (cap. 2; comp. Luk_11:20 with Mat_12:28), and explains the several meanings of Jerusalem (ecclesia, vel anima, cap. 10), ark (caro Dominica, corda sanctorum Deo plena, ecclesia intra quam salvanda clauduntur), Babylon (mundus, Roma, inimici), fures (haeretici et pseudoprophetae, gentes, vitia), chirographum, pactum, praeputium, circumcisio, etc. In the last chapter he treats of the symbolical significance of numbers, as 1 = Divine Unity; 2 = the two covenants, the two chief commandments; 3 = the trinity in heaven and on earth (he quotes the spurious passage 1Jo_5:7); 4 = the four Gospels, the four rivers of Paradise; 5 = the five books of Moses, five loaves, five wounds of Christ (Joh_20:25); 6 = the days of creation, the ages of the world; 7 = the day of rest, of perfection; 8 = the day of resurrection; 10 = the Decalogue; 12 = the Apostles, the universal multitude of believers, etc.

The theory of the fourfold interpretation was more fully developed by Rabanus Maurus (776-856), in his curious book, Allegoriae in Universam Sacram Scripturam (Opera, ed. Migne, Tom. VI. col. 849-1088). He calls the four senses the four daughters of wisdom, by whom she nourishes her children, giving to beginners drink in lacte historiae, to the believers food in pane allegoriae, to those engaged in good works encouragement in refectione tropologiae, to those longing for heavenly rest delight in vino anagogiae. He also gives the following definition at the beginning of the treatise: “Historia ad aptam rerum gestarum narrationem pertinet, quae et in superficie litterae continetur, et sic intelligitur sicut legitur. Allegoria vero aliquid in se plus continet, quod per hoc quod locus [loquens] de rei veritate ad quiddam dat intelligendum de fidei puritate, et sanctae Ecclesiae mysteria, sive praesentia, sive futura, aliud dicens, aliud significans, semper autem figmentis et velatis ostendit. Tropologia quoque et ipsa, sicut allegoria, in figuratis, sive dictis, sive factis, constat: sed in hoc ab allegoria distat quod Allegoria quidem fidem, Tropologia vero aedificat moralitem. Anagogia autem, sive velatis, sive apertis dictis, de aeternis supernae patriae gaudiis constat, et quae merces vel fidem rectam, vel vitam maneat sanctam, verbis vel opertis, vel apertis demonstrat. Historia namque perfectorum exempla quo narrat, legentem ad imitationem sanctitatis excitat; Allegoria in fidei revelatione ad cognitionem veritatis; Tropologia in instructione morum ad amorem virtutis; Anagogia in manifestatione sempiternorum gaudiorum ad desiderium aeternae felicitatis. In nostrae ergo animae domo Historia fundamentum ponit; Allegoria parietes erigit; Anagogia tectum supponit; Tropologia vero tam interius per affectum quam exterius per effectum boni operis, variis ornatibus depingit.”