Category Archives: Holcot’s Commentary on Wisdom

Holcot’s Wisdom Commentary: A Note on Balliol 27 and Basel 1586

As I have noted previously, Beryl Smalley defended the general reliability of the Basel 1586 edition of Holcot’s commentary on Wisdom. Further, she also argued that Balliol 27 was “close to an autograph” copy of the work being corrected against the book of the Master (i.e., Holcot’s personal manuscript copy). Questions remain, however, regarding the reliability of the 1586 edition. As I (and Jeff Witt) continue to work on the text it is clear that there are numerous discrepancies between Balliol 27 and Basel 1586.

Consider lectio 44 (Basel 1586, p. 155; Balliol 27, fol. 72ra). Balliol 27 and Basel 1586 agree about the first paragraph, beginning with “Postquam Spiritus Sanctus probavit adulterinae” and ending with “Secunda pars ibi: immortalis. Tertia pars ibi: cum praesens est.” Thus, in the images below you note that the end of the first paragraph of the Basel text (left) is consistent (basically) what what is highlighted in Balliol 27 (right). However, to find the section of Balliol 27 that corresponds with the beginning of the second paragraph of the Basel text one has to skip about 34 lines of text (in Balliol). The reader will note that the second highlighted section of Balliol 27 reads: “est advertendum, quod ad hoc, quod castitas coniungalis debito modo feruetur, tria requirit, vi-… etc.” This picks up the Basel text (absent Circa primum) with the second paragraph. The upshot: everything between the highlighted sections of Balliol 27 is missing from Basel 1586 (I have yet to find this section of text anywhere in lectio 44).  Perhaps Basel 1586 is not as reliable as Smalley first imagined. [NB: an almost identical omission is found in a French manuscript (Troyes 907, fol. 44va) that preserves the text as found in Basel 1586.]

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 9.37.00 AM    MS027-f072r



The present post does not put forth a new argument about Balliol 27, but makes evident some of the work done by Beryl Smalley about six decades ago (given the recent scans of Balliol 27 now available). That said, it confirms and supports her argument with further evidence.

Beryl Smalley prioritized two manuscripts of Holcot’s commentary on Wisdom: (1) Oxford, Balliol College 27; and (2) Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 562. Regarding the former, Smalley writes that in the margins of Balliol 27 there are references to the liber magistri (the book of the master) written in a hand that is contemporary with the text itself. This indicates, it seems, that Balliol 27 was copied or corrected from a manuscript belonging to Holcot (the master). Further, Smalley is correct to observe that the hand (both of the text and of the corrections noted above) belongs to the period before 1350 and “might be rather earlier.” Smalley concludes that Balliol 27 is “quite close to an autograph” (Smalley 1956, 11).

Regarding Bodl. 562 Smalley states that this manuscript originates from Paris during Holcot’s lifetime. The text is found on folios 1ra–188vb and contains two tables: (1) an alphabetical table of subject matter (189ra–193vb); and (2) a second table of quaestiones (193vb–194rb). Finally, regarding Bodl. 562, Smalley notes that the text is good but already begins to introduce errors and is already “on the downward path” because, in Smalley’s judgment, Holcot’s classicism was probably “baffling to his copyists” (Smalley 1956, 11–12).

Here we are concerned with the former manuscript (Balliol 27), which has been recently scanned and made public through the work of Anna Sander. As a result, a few of Smalley’s observations can be easily confirmed (see Smalley 1956, 12). First, Smalley notes that Balliol 27 is incomplete and that a quire is missing between folios 125 and 126 (of the modern foliation). This means that part of lectiones 79 and 82, and all of 80 and 81 are missing. Despite this fact, Balliol 27 is perhaps one of the most accurate and reliable manuscripts of the commentary on Wisdom. The most compelling evidence of this fact are the various marginal notations that mention the book of the master (liber magistri). I will refer to the marginal corrections (written in a different hand) as those of the “editor.” Here are a few images from Balliol 27:

Fol. 178v


Here there is clearly a break or space in the manuscript. Next to the text the editor writes in the margin: Hic erat unum spatium magnum vacuum in libro magistri (Smalley omits vacuum in her transcription).

 Fol. 189v


At the bottom of folio 189v there is large textual addition and it is clear, as Smalley observes, that the editor did not know where to insert the text. The marginal notation attending the addition states: Non erat signum in libro magistri ubi debet intrare, sed erat scriptum in superiori margine supra principium istius lectionis. 

Fol. 236r


On folio 236r the editor notes that Holcot’s discussion (the text reads, Digna facta est ista habitatio per tria) breaks off short. The editor writes in the margin: Non erant ista tria in libro magistri.

Fol. 290r


The final correction listed by Smalley is found on folio 290r. In the text, Holcot writes that there are six benefits that humanity receives from God. However, when it comes time to expound on the six benefits, the editor notes that Holcot’s text (the liber magistri) omits the fourth benefit. The marginal notation of the editor reads: quartum non fuit in libro magistri.

Fol. 119r


In her study of Balliol 27 Smalley omitted a marginal notation from the editor found on folio 119r. This marginal notation reads: Hoc erat scriptum cum plumbo in libro magistri in margine in inferiori in fine istius lectionis. Et idem inseras in divisione sequentis, si vis [NB: the in prior to inferiori is a mistake by dittography]. I think given the other passages in Balliol 27 that use the phrase in libero magistri that it is justified reading the li as libero [though one would prefer to see liº]. It could also be hoc, it seems, meaning libero.

 It is difficult to disagree with Smalley’s conclusion that Balliol 27 should take priority in studies of the Wisdom commentary and that it is close to the autograph. Further, Smalley is certainly correct in her judgement that as one gets further removed from the original autograph, numerous errors and scribal mis-readings become evident in the text.  As Smalley noted, though, the edition published in Basel 1586 (Super Sapientiam Salomonis. In librum Sapientiae regis Salomonis praelectiones. Basel, 1586.) was (thankfully!) produced from a good manuscript. However, one must proceed with caution.  Having read Basel 1586 against Balliol 27 (and Troyes 907) for the first chapter of Wisdom (approximately the first 25 folios) one notes that there are several significant omissions by homoteleuton in Basel 1586. Thus, Basel 1586 should be read in conjunction with Balliol 27.

Thanks here to R. Jim Long and Siegfried Wenzel for comments, suggestions, and corrections to a few of the transcriptions.

Royal 2 F VII: Holcot’s Wisdom

As I was browsing around on the internet today I found an image of a table of contents that includes Holcot’s Wisdom commentary.  The image is taken from Royal 2 F VII (folio 1v) and is a truly beautiful colophon (i.e., a description of the book and table of contents)–the second book listed, one notes, is Robert Holcot’s commentary on Wisdom. The first work is by Nicolaus de Hanapis, the second by Robert Holcot, the third by Thomas Ryngstede and the fourth by William Kyngushome. The manuscript was commissioned by Lord John Beaver (the last three words of the first line read “Dominus Iohannes Beauer“) for the Benedictine Abbey of St. Albans. I post the image here simply because of the remarkable detail (I wish all manuscripts looked like this!).

Nota bene: for a discussion of the historical context that produced such manuscripts, see James G. Clark’s A Monastic Renaissance at St. Albans: Thomas Walsingham and His Circle c. 1350-1440 (Oxford, 2005). There is also a bit of information on one Lord John Beaver.

Royal 2 F VII

Balliol College (Balliol manuscripts 26, 27 and 246)

According to a reliable source the late Maurice De Wulf once gave a paper on the impact of the railroad on medieval manuscript studies.  The argument, presumably, being that with rapid and convenient transportation medieval scholars could now study manuscripts spread throughout the continent. While I am sure the railroad did enhance the study of medieval manuscripts, there can be no doubt that the availability of digital manuscript copies is currently revolutionizing the field.  Here are a few notes on various manuscripts of Robert Holcot recently made available by Balliol College and the current archivist Anna Sander.

I. Robert Holcot’s Commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Balliol 26).

The second biblical commentary that Robert Holcot wrote originated with his lectures on the Twelve Prophets. This lecture series was given at Oxford while Holcot was regent master in theology (1336-1338). The lectures are interesting in that they have been preserved in a relatively unaltered state; as Smalley notes, “[Holcot] did not polish his notes on the Twelve Prophets enough to make them presentable” (EFA, 142). The result is that while the lectures never gained the fame of his other more polished commentaries, they do present one with a relatively pristine view of what was perhaps presented in the lectures themselves. The commentary on the Twelve Prophets is extant in four manuscripts and was never published in an early modern edition. The manuscripts are:

London, Gray’s Inn, fols. 1ra-72ra;
Oxford Bodleian Library, SC 2648 (Bodl. 722), fols. 1-140;
Oxford, Balliol College 26, fols. 1-176v; and
Valencia, Cathedral 191, fols. 125ra-169rb.

For a discussion of the manuscripts, see Kimberly A. Rivers, “Pictures, Preaching and Memory in Robert Holcot’s Commentary on the Twelve Prophets,” (M.S.L. Thesis, University of Toronto 1993), 27-28. Kimberly Rivers edited the book of Nahum from three of the extant manuscripts, thus providing a glimpse into Holcot’s earliest scriptural exegesis. The content of the work is an exegetical analysis of each of the twelve minor prophets in the Christian Old Testament (in the Vulgate, i.e.: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachai).

II. Robert Holcot’s Commentary on Wisdom (Balliol 27).

Robert Holcot’s Commentary on Wisdom is often called a “medieval best seller” and is extant in hundreds of manuscripts spread throughout Europe. The late Beryl Smalley preferred to use two manuscripts of the commentary on Wisdom: (1) Oxford, Balliol College 27; and (2) Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 562. Regarding the former, Smalley writes that in the margins of Balliol 27 there are references to the ‘liber magistri’ (book of the master) written in a hand that is contemporary with the text itself. Indicating, it seems, that Balliol 27 was copied from a book belonging to Holcot. Further, she notes, the hand belongs to the period before 1350 and “might be rather earlier.”  Thus, Smalley concludes that Balliol 27 is “quite close to an autograph” (Smalley, “Robert Holcot,” 11).

Nota Bene: the header of this webpage is taken from Balliol 27, f. 2r. It is the first page of Holcot’s commentary on Wisdom beginning, “Dominus petra mea et robur meum [et salvator meus].” (The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, II Samuel 22:2).

III. Robert Holcot’s Quodlibetal Questions (Balliol College 246) (not yet scanned).

Robert Holcot is one of the last fourteenth-century English scholars to leave a collection of quodlibetal questions. A few notes on Holcot’s quodlibets is instructive. First, it has proved difficult to date Holcot’s quodlibetal questions. Based on the dating of Holcot’s commentary on the Sentences, his quodlibetal questions are dated by Heinrich Schepers, William Courtenay, and Katherine Tachau to the years 1333-34. More recently, Hester Gelber has argued that Holcot’s Quodlibeta most likely occurred during his period of regency at Oxford between 1336 and 1338 (ICHBO, 91-95). In a subsequent article Rondo Keele correctly pointed out that at present the date of the Quodlibeta cannot be determined with any finality and that it is best to simply state that the work probably dates from between 1333 and 1338. Second, while the dating of Holcot’s Quodlibeta is difficult enough to determine, establishing the list of questions debated (and their proper order) is much more complex. The reason for this is that Holcot’s Quodlibeta include over a hundred individual questions which are preserved in at least three distinct traditions found in the following three manuscripts:

(P1) Cambridge, Pembroke College Library 236 (ff. 117ra-221vb);
(B) London, British Library, Royal (ff. 141vb-174ra); and
(R) Oxford, Balliol College Library 246 (ff. 182ra-264va).

These manuscripts present radically divergent lists of the quodlibetal questions: P1 preserves 99 questions, R preserves 91 questions and B preserves 38 questions. That said, there are over a hundred total quodlibetal questions, for, as Richard Gillespie demonstrated some time ago, R and B preserve questions that are missing from P1.  The majority of the quodlibets are rather short, with the typical question ranging from a single column of text up to a folio (i.e., 2 pages). Only a few of the questions extend to more than two folios in length.