Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Gregory the Great and Classical Latin

A number of years ago, when I was even more obviously a layman when it comes to Classical Studies than I am now, I and a prominent Classical scholar exchanged a number of emails. He very generously took the time to answer various questions I had about the transmission of Classical Latin literature. He answered every one of my emails thoroughly and with amazing promptness. I am even more amazed now by his generosity towards me than I was at the time, because now I know somewhat more about the enormous amount of work this man has done in finding, reading, editing and commenting upon manuscripts of ancient Latin. He wasn't just sitting around with nothing to do when I, a nobody, contacted him.

One of my questions I posed to this scholar concerned the authority of the suggestion by Oxford professor Albert C Clark, in his 1921 paper "The Reappearance of the Texts of the Classics," that Gregory the Great, Pope from 590 to 604, had "burnt all manuscripts of Livy which he could find." My correspondent said that he was aware of Prof Clark's assertion and flatly rejected it as being an anecdote without any evidence, and added that he was an atheist, so he wasn't grinding an ax. Which surprised me a little, since I hadn't written a word about Christian belief or atheism or ax-grinding. It surprises me a little less now, since in the intervening years I have experienced a tremendous amount of ax-grinding on the part of apologists and atheists on the subject of how, how much and why Classical Latin declined during the Dark Ages. (By "Dark Ages" I -- and many others -- mean the period between the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century AD, and the rise of Charlemagne's Empire around AD 800.)

The earliest reference I have yet been able to find to Gregory's deliberate destruction of manuscripts of Livy was written by William of Malmesbury, over 500 years after Gregory's death. [PS, 29 Mar 2018: Perhaps eventually I will learn not to trust my memory, but to check and be certain before claiming that So-and-so wrote such-and-such. It seems that William wrote no such thing, and that his contemporary, John of Salisbury, wrote that Gregory burned some pagan books, but with no mention of Livy. See the comments below. My apologies. The search continues for where Prof Clark may have gotten the idea that Gregory burned manuscripts of Livy.] I don't find that length of time, in and of itself, to be a convincing reason to reject William's report: Gregory was a tremendously powerful figure, tremendously well-respected all over the Catholic world long after his death, certainly still in William's time, and it would have been dangerous to publicly say scandalous things about him, but that doesn't mean that things could not have been privately, and accurately, said. More convincing evidence against the burning than those 500 years, it seems to me, is how expensive parchment was in the Dark Ages, and how widespread the practice of palimpsesting: the earlier pagan text was scraped off of the parchment, and a Christian text written in its place. The pagan text was just as thoroughly gone as if it had been burned, or so the palimpsester would've thought at the time. But they were wrong. Since the late 18th century, with the aid of various modern technologies, we have been able to recover some of those palimpsested pagan texts, reading them just from the indentations they left behind.

2 of the 8 manuscripts of Livy written before Gregory's time which are known to still exist survive only as palimpsests. One of these, now preserved as Biblioteca Capitolare XL (38) in Verona,

was overwritten with a text by Gregory. This can be shrugged off as a hilarious coincidence -- but should it be?

The fact is that many Classical Latin texts, including the approximately 3/4 of Livy's huge long history of Rome which we don't have today, began to disappear in the late 6th century. How do we know this? Because those Classical texts were quoted up until the late 6th century, and then not later, ever -- unless they miraculously appeared later, like the other palimpsest of Livy, Palatinus Lat. 24 in the Vatican Library, which was found, in the late 18th century, to contain a palimpsest of a 1000-word-long passage from book 91 of Livy, a passage which no-one had seen in a very, very long time.

Okay, so a lot of ancient Latin literature went missing during the same time that Gregory was rising toward the Papacy -- should we therefore assume that it went missing because of Gregory?

Yes! We shouldn't paint Christians of the period with a broad brush. It is known that some of them supported the preservation of Classical literature and that some of them did not. It is known that Gregory did not -- and that he was by far the most powerful man of his time in Catholic Christendom, the entire area where Latin was the primary written language. He is only one of 3 Popes to have been called "the Great," and I'll bet most of you can't name either of the other 2. It was he who came up with the 7 Deadly Sins. He thought volcanoes were Hell overflowing because it was so full of damned souls, and that the End was Near. He was sainted immediately after his death by popular acclaim. When a man had that much influence and disapproved of the Latin Classics, it's no more than common sense to assume that he had a lot to do with the way that they disappeared en masse on his watch, and to ask that the burden of prove be placed on those attempting to demonstrate that he did not.

Apologists will snort and laugh at my claim that Gregory caused much of the literary legacy of ancient Rome to disappear. They will accuse me of painting with a broad brush, despite my having said that some Dark Age Christians helped to preserve Classical Latin. Benedict of Nursia and Cassiodorus are 2 great examples. They themselves, the apologists, will paint with a broad brush, such as when they claim that every time that non-Christians waged war in the Dark Ages, it meant the wholesale destruction of written material including the Classics, and that every time Christians of the same period waged war, it did not.

As in every case of historical controversy, I advise those who really want to know to turn to the primary sources.

I'm angry, angry at Gregory, and I'm not bothering to try to hide it. Does this mean that I'm grinding an ax, or that I'm considering things which would make any reasonable person angry?


  1. "One of these, now preserved as Biblioteca Capitolare XL (38) in Verona, was overwritten with a text by Gregory. This can be shrugged off as a hilarious coincidence -- but should it be?"

    Considering that Gregory's text was written in the 8th century I must assume that Livy's text surpassed intact Gregory's time...

    p.s. could you give the bibliographic reference to William of Malmesbury?

    1. Yes, that manuscript outlived Gregory's lifetime. So did Gregory's influence.

      I couldn't find the exact passage in William when I was writing the post, and I don't have it now, but I will reply and tell you as soon as I find it.

    2. I really need to write things down more often and really less upon my less-than-immaculate memory. I apologize.

      I may have confused William with John of Salisbury, who wrote in Policraticus, I, ii: "Ad haec Doctor Sanctissimus Gregorius – non modo mathesin jussit ab aula recedere, sed, ut traditur a majoribus, incendio dedit probatae lectionis Scripta Palatinus quaecumque tenebat Apollo (Horat. ep. 3. I.) im quibus erant praecipua, quae coelestium mentem, et superiorum oracula videbantur hominibus relevare."