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Peter Brown on the Dolbeau Sermons and Divjak Letters

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It is August once more, and for us Augustinians, the month reminds us of Augustine of Hippo. I visited the website of the Order yesterday hoping to find any new materials about Augustine or the Order’s spirituality and found this news item about the discovery in Erfurt of six previously unheard of sermons of Augustine. The news report is syndicated from the Tablet dated 5 April 2008 and authored by a certain Christa Pongratz-Lippit. She describes how these manuscripts have come to Erfurt thus


St Augustine’s preaching in the cathedral at Hippo Regius – the Algerian port of Bone today – attracted people from many parts of northern Africa. Large crowds from the then flourishing city of Carthage came, some of whom brought their scribes with them. The scribes took the sermons down and St Augustine would correct their copies afterwards. Some collections of his sermons reached England via Italy by the year 1000, according to the Dutch St Augustine specialist Professor Hans van Oort. It is thought that the newly discovered sermons are part of one such collection and were copied in England. Structural and handwriting similarities to English manuscripts point to the likelihood that they reached the continent via England.

There was a lecture about the discovery last April 15. I don’t know whether the Journal meant to publish them is already out. This means that whatever Opera Omnia Augustini we have in our libraries will still have to be updated and whatever hope that we have of ever publishing a “complete and exhaustive” concordance of Augustine will have to wait.

Some years ago, the discovery of some letters of Augustine that gave us a glimpse of the social problems of Northern Africa of his time excited us. It was a find that revealed to us in a stark manner the kind of concerns Augustine had in a world of pirates and slave traders. The Order has published a document that incorporated this find. Before that however, there was also the discovery of the Dolbeau and Divjak letters. I may have come across these in some of the new editions of the Opera Omnia Augustini, but I am not really sure. Regarding these, however, I recently found a lecture (or an article?) by a prominent Augustinologist, Peter Brown, now available here.

Peter Brown describes how the discoveries of how these sermons and letters were made thus:

In 1975, Johannes Divjak of Vienna (on mission from the Austrian Academy, to catalogue all manuscripts of Augustine in European libraries) found a mid-fifteenth century manuscript in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Marseilles. Produced in around 1440 for King René of Anjou, a rich but unfortunate monarch, the author of a courtly novel in the best late medieval manner, The Story of a Heart Caught by Love, the manuscript had been known, but had not been closely examined. It was assumed that an elegant late medieval manuscript could hardly contain any new work of an author as frequently copied as was Augustine. Hence the surprise of Johannes Divjak when, on examining the text, he found that it contained, added to a standard collection of Augustine’s letters, twenty nine other letters, of which twenty seven (many of them very long) were utterly unknown. Known now as the Divjak Letters, these twenty nine letters tell us in great detail about hitherto unknown events and about the activities of Augustine as a bishop in Roman North Africa in the last decades of his life: the longest and most vivid of them range from between 419 and 428.

Yet again, in 1990, François Dolbeau perceived that an apparently uninteresting, badly-copied manuscript of the late fifteenth century, recently catalogued in the Stadtbibliothek of Mainz, contained groups of sermons known previously only through titles in Possidius’ Indiculum and through Carolingian library lists of sermons and a few, short extracts. They were first announced to the learned world as the Mayence Sermons (from the French word for Mainz, the place of their discovery) and are now known as the Dolbeau Sermons, from their discoverer. One cluster of these sermons represents Augustine’s preaching at Carthage in the spring and summer of 397—that is, in the crucial year of the beginning of his career as a bishop, at a time when the Confessions were already forming in his mind. The other group of sermons takes us to Carthage and the little towns outside Carthage in the late winter and spring of 403-404, at a time of urgent reform in Catholic worship combined with new Catholic aggression against pagans and Donatists.

What is interesting about these documents, Brown tells us is that they give us the “inside stuff” so to speak, about the life of Augustine, of his times and allows us to peek into his thoughts in a way that would not have been possible before. One example Brown puts before us is Augustine’s attitude about the way his thoughts and writings are to be received. In a quote from one of the Dolbeau sermons (?), we find this

We who preach and write books, we write in a manner altogether different from the manner in which the canon of the Scriptures has been written. We write while we make progress. We learn something new every day. We dictate at the same time as we explore. We speak as we still knock for understanding . . . I urge your Charity, on my behalf and in my own case, that you should not take any previous book or preaching of mine as Holy Scripture . . . If anyone criticizes me when I have said what is right, he does me an injustice. But I would be more angry with the one who praises me and takes what I have written for Gospel truth (canonicum) than I would be with the one who criticizes me unfairly.

We find this same attitude in some of his works, especially in those areas where Augustine offers his thoughts on a particular topic and tells his readers to take it as one among other opinions (e.g. an exegesis of a difficult passage of Genesis). We know of course that Augustine’s convictions about the “Interior Master” dissuades anyone from imposing one’s own ideas on anyone. It is ultimately for this reason that the Order of St. Augustine never had an official teacher in theology or philosophy as the Domicans had in Thomas Aquinas.

Again in a Dolbeau sermon (On Obedience), Brown gives us a quote from Augustine where he gives his listeners a glimpse of his naughtiness as a young man. The same quote also gives us a picture of the young Augustine going to one of those disorderly martyrs’ feasts in Carthage a custom which, as a bishop, he wanted to be stopped.

When I went to vigils as a student in this city, I spent the night rubbing up beside women, along with other boys anxious to make an impression on the girls, and where, who knows, the opportunity might present itself to have a love-affair with them.

From the Divjak letters, Brown also picks up a case of one of Augustine’s own monks who upon becoming a bishop (it was also Augustine who ordained him) turned out to be rapacious and given to “abuses of every kind.” This young bishop’s name was Antoninus of Fussala. Peter Brown gives us a picture of this incident as can be culled from the relevant Divjak letters thus

We do not often find Augustine in so helpless a situation. In 422, he was stranded for weeks in the middle of a countryside where everyone spoke only Punic. He visited the village of Fussala, where the inhabitants pointed out to him the holes in the houses from which Antoninus had pillaged the stones in order to build a splendid new episcopal palace. He was finally left, sitting alone, one morning, in a village church after the entire congregation had walked out in disgust … leaving him and his colleagues to wonder how, by what series of misjudgments ably exploited by an able rogue, they had brought “so much sadness upon the country people.”

In a letter to Fabiola, a senatorial lady from whom Antoninus had asked for protection, Augustine, dissuading her from trusting the man, writes

You (Fabiola) seek God [as a well-to-do pious Christian] in the world; he (Antoninus) seeks the world within the church.

A pithy description about wrongly motivated individuals who get away with it on ordination day, would you think? And for the superiors and bishops who have raised him to the altars, they are left to “wonder how, by what series of misjudgments ably exploited by an able rogue, they had brought so much sadness” upon the people of God.

There is more to Peter Brown’s article which can be found here in webpage format.

So getting back to the more recently discovered sermons, I hope that these would be as enlightening and as informative as these other “recently discovered” letters and sermons from Augustine.  Pongratz-Lippit describes them thus

Three of the sermons concern almsgiving. St Augustine examines the relationship between giving alms to the bishop and the latter’s duty to support his flock in return. In another sermon about St Cyprian, who was martyred in 258, Augustine criticises the practice of holding drunken orgies on martyrs’ feast days. And one sermon is on the reality of the resurrection of the dead and on believing in the truth of biblical prophecies.

Sounds promising, don’t you think?

Originally posted 2008-08-13 02:50:52. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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