How to write and publish in the Middle Ages: Eadmer and St Anselm

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Unknown, Eadmer of Canterbury (English, about 1055 – 1124) De Vita et Conversatione Anselmi Cantuariensis, 1140 to 1150, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

We moderns easily forget that the medieval texts we read in manuscript or in print are the result of a complex process of composition; that writers didn’t just ‘pen’ words and sentences as they came to them; that we are not the only ones to struggle on the agonising road from ‘idea’ to ‘final draft’. As Mary Carruthers pointed out long ago, textual composition in the Middle Ages was a function of memory (not to be reduced to memorisation), cogitation and collation. Composition was independent from writing. The latter merely fixed and ‘authorised’ the author’s ‘text’, by making in known publicly.

One of the most fascinating descriptions of a medieval author at work is Eadmer of Canterbury’s account of St Anselm’s (1033-1109) difficult composition and publication of his short tract Proslogion in the late 1070s, sometimes translated into English as Discourse on the Existence of God. Eadmer was Anselm’s biographer, and he’s given us one of the best glimpses into the life of a 11th-century writer. Eadmer describes how Anselm struggled with the work’s ‘subject matter’ – something we may liken to the modern ‘writer’s block’; how devising the text kept one so focused that it caused disruptions to one’s lifestyle; that backing up one’s drafts was as important in the 11th century as it is today; that one has a responsibility to respond to reviews, especially when they are negative.

Most importantly, Eadmer’s story shows the importance of memory as an organic library of information and the fragility of a text’s existence before it is committed to parchment.

Eadmeri Vita Sancti Anselmi. The Life of St Anselm by Eadmer, ed. by Richard W. Southern (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), pp. 29-31:

For the Latin text, go to the end of this post.[1]

He [Anselm] also composed another small book, which he called the Monologion because in this he alone spoke and argued with himself. Here, putting aside all authority of Holy Scripture, he enquired into and discovered by reason alone what God is, and proved by invincible reason that God’s nature is what the true faith holds it to be, and that it could not be other than it is. Afterwards it came into his mind to try to prove by one single and short argument the things which are believed and preached about God, that he is eternal, unchangeable, omnipotent, omnipresent, incomprehensible, just, righteous, merciful, true, as well as truth, goodness, justice and so on; and to show how all these qualities are united in him. And this, as he himself would say, gave him great trouble, partly because thinking about it took away his desire for food, drink and sleep, and partly—and this was more grievous to him—because it disturbed the attention which he ought to have paid to matins and to Divine service at other times. When he was aware of this, and still could not entirely lay hold on what he sought, he supposed that this line of thought was a temptation of the devil and he tried to banish it from his mind. But the more vehemently he tried to do this, the more this thought pursued him. Then suddenly one night during matins the grace of God illuminated his heart, the whole matter became clear to his mind, and a great joy and exultation filled his inmost being. Thinking therefore that others also would be glad to know what he had found, he immediately and ungrudgingly wrote it on writing tablets and gave them to one of the brethren of the monastery for safe-keeping. After a few days he asked the monk who had charge of them for the tablets. The place where they had been laid was searched, but they were not found. The brethren were asked in case anyone had taken them, but in vain. And to this day no-one has been found who has confessed that he knew anything about them. Anselm wrote another draft on the same subject on other tablets, and handed them over to the same monk for more careful keeping. He placed them once more by his bed, in a more secret place, and the next day—having no suspicion of any mischance he found them scattered on the floor beside his bed and the wax which was on them strewn about in small pieces. After the tablets had been picked up and the wax collected together, they were taken to Anselm. He pieced together the wax and recovered the writing, though with difficulty. Fearing now that by some carelessness it might be altogether lost, he ordered it, in the name of the Lord, to be copied onto parchment. From this, therefore, he composed a volume, small in size but full of weighty discourse and most subtle speculation, which he called the Proslogion, because in this work he speaks either to himself or to God. This work came into the hands of someone who found fault with one of the arguments in it, judging it to be unsound. In an attempt to refute it he wrote a treatise against it and attached this to the end of Anselm’s work. A friend sent this to Anselm who read it with pleasure, expressed his thanks to his critic and wrote his reply to the criticism. He had this reply attached to the treatise which had been sent to him, and returned it to the friend from whom it had come, desiring him and others who might deign to have his little book to write out at the end of it the criticism of his argument and his own reply to the criticism.

Eadmeri Vita Sancti Anselmi. The Life of St Anselm by Eadmer, ed. by Richard W. Southern (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), pp. 29-31:

Fecit quoque libellum unum quem Monologion appellavit. Solus enim in eo et secum loquitur, ac tacita omni auctoritate divinae scripturae quid Deus sit sola ratione quaerit et invenit, et quod vera fides de Deo sentit, invincibili ratione sic nec aliter esse posse probat et astruit. Post haec incidit sibi in mentem investigare utrum uno solo et brevi argumento probari posset id quod de Deo creditur et praedicatur, videlicet quod sit aeternus, incommutabilis, omnipotens, ubique totus, incompraehensibilis, justus, pius, misericors, verax, veritas, bonitas, justitia, et nonnulla alia, et quomodo haec omnia in ipso unum sint.3 Quae res. sicut ipse referebat magnam sibi peperit difficultatem. Nam haec cogitatio partim illi cibum, potum et somnum tollebat, partim et quod magis eum gravabat intentionem ejus qua matutinis et alii servitio Dei intendere debebat perturbabat. Quod ipse animadvertens, nec adhuc quod quaerebat ad plenum capere valens. ratus est hujusmodi cogitationem diaboli esse temptationem, nisusque est eam procul repellere a sua intentione. Verum quanto plus in hoc desudabat. tanto illum ipsa cogitatio magis ac magis infestabat. Et ecce quadam nocte inter nocturnas vigilias Dei gratia illuxit in corde ejus, et res patuit intellectui ejus, immensoque gaudio et jubilatione replevit omnia intima ejus. Reputans ergo apud se hoc ipsum et aliis si sciretur posse placere. livore carens rem ilico scripsit in tabulis, easque sollicitius custodiendas uni ex monasterii fratribus tradidit. Post dies aliquot tabulas repetit a custode. Quaeruntur in loco ubi repositae fuerant, nec inveniuntur. Requiruntur a fratribus ne forte aliquis eas acceperit, sed nequiquam. Nec enim hucusque inventus est, qui recognoverit se quicquam inde scivisse. Reparat Anselmus aliud de eadem materia dictamen in aliis tabulis, et illas eidem sub cautiori custodia tradit custodi. Ille in secretiori parte lectuli sui tabulas reponit, et sequenti die nil sinistri suspicatus. easdem in pavimento sparsas ante lectum repperit, cera quas in ipsis erat hac illae frustatim dispersa. Levantur tabulas, cera colligitur, et pariter Anselmo reportantur. Adunat ipse ceram, et licet vix. scripturam recuperat. Verens autem ne qua incuria penitus perditum eat; eam in nomine Domini pergamenas jubet tradi. Composuit ergo inde volumen parvulum, sed sententiarum ac subtilissimas contemplationis pondere magnum, quod Proslogion nominavit. Alloquitur etenim in eo opere aut seipsum aut Deum. Quod opus cum in manus cujusdam venisset, et is in quadam ipsius operis argumentatione non parum offendisset. Ratus est eandem argumentationem ratam non esse. Quam refellere gestiens; quoddam contra illam scriptum composuit, et illud fini ejusdem operis scriptum apposuit. Quod cum sibi ab uno amicorum suorum transmissum Anselmus considerasset; gavisus est, et repraehensori suo gratias agens, suam ad hoc responsionem edidit, eamque libello sibi directo subscriptam, sub uno ei qui miserat amico remisit, hoc ab eo et ab aliis qui libellum illum habere dignantur petitum iri desiderans, quatinus in fine ipsius suae argumentationis repraehensio, et repraehensioni sua responsio subscribatur.

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