Category Archives: Robert Holcot

Robert Holcot’s commentary on Ecclesiasticus: Basel, Universitätsbibliothek B.V.11

Robert Holcot’s commentary on the book of Ecclesiasticus is one of his least studied works. The purpose of the present post is to briefly summarize what we know about the commentary and to offer a brief comparison of the early printed edition (Venice 1509) with Basel, Universitätsbibliothek B.V.11. This is the heart of the present post and the gist of it is presented in table form (Here): comparing the content of Venice 1509 with Basel B.V.11. This provides an initial point of comparison between the edition and the manuscript tradition, however more work has to done on the manuscript tradition.

We begin, as usual, with a brief summary of Smalley’s introduction to the commentary. Holcot’s commentary on Ecclesiasticus is preserved in 19 manuscripts and one early modern printing (see here). Smalley correctly notes that the work is divided into lectiones (lectures) similarly to the commentary on Wisdom (in Venice 1509 there are 88 lectures) (Smalley 1956, 16). While she observes that there are no “anecdotes or allusions” that provide a date for the commentary, Holcot’s use of Nicholas of Lyra places it after the commentaries on Wisdom and the Twelve Prophets (Smalley 1956, 23). Further, the printed edition and several of the manuscripts (e.g., Braunschweig 26 and Royal 3.A.xiv) state in the colophon that Holcot died before he could complete the work. As Smalley notes, if accurate this would place the commentary at the end of Holcot’s life during the last six years in which he lived at Northampton and lectured at the friary school (Smalley 1956, 23). Unfortunately, Smalley did not examine the content of the commentary on Ecclesiasticus in detail. Her attention remained focused on Holcot’s picture method—as developed in the Twelve Prophets, Wisdom and the Moralitates—and his use of sources. Further, I am not aware of a substantive examination of Holcot’s commentary on Ecclesiasticus. This is unfortunate, for as Smalley notes such a study would provide some information about the nature of Dominican education within the Northampton friary in the fourteenth century (and by comparison with the Wisdom commentary, could provide a useful tool to examine the differences between biblical lectures at the friaries and the Universities). The list of 19 manuscripts provides a somewhat distorted picture, as some of these manuscripts contain only small sections of the work. For example, the Basel Universitätsbibliothek preserves three manuscripts that contain sections of the commentary:

1. Basel, Universitätsbibliothek A.II.26, ff. 104r–105v, 107r–119v.
2. Basel, Universitätsbibliothek A.X.40, ff. 78r–80v.
3. Basel, Universitätsbibliothek B.V.11, ff. 1r–102v.

Of these three, only B.V.11 preserves a complete version of the work. I have had a chance to examine the manuscript and to compare B.V.11 to the Venice edition printed in 1509. The Basel manuscript contains 12 quires: [quire 1 (-8v), quire 2 (-16v), quire 3 (-24v), quire 4 (-32v), quire 5 (-40v), quire 6 (-50v), quire 7 (-58v), quire 8 (-66v), quire 9 (-74v), quire 10 (-82v), quire 11 (-90v), and quire 12 (-98v)]. The incipit and explicit are as follows:

Incipit Postilla super librum Ecclesiasticum edita a fratre Roberto Holcoth sacre pagine doctore, ordo praedicatorum (1ra). Omnis sapientia a domino Deo est [Eccl. 1:1]. Magister et dominus Gundisalinus libro suo De ortu scientiarum sic ait.

Explicit lectura, etc (98rb).

Explicit expliceat ludere scriptor eat | vinum scriptori debetur de meliori (98rb).

For those more interested in beautiful pictures, here is the capital on 1r.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 10.38.08 AM


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.

Lambeth 221 and Basel A II 26: Some Manuscript Notes (Holcot)

Robert Holcot is alleged to have written a work called the Distinctiones Bibliae. As I note here, Sharpe (1475, p. 555) lists the Distinctiones Bibliae as an authentic work of Robert Holcot. Whether or not this work should be attributed to Holcot is far from certain, although at present there is no reason to dismiss the work as spurious.  Sharpe notes that the incipit of the work is Abominabitur autem Deus tales and that it should be distinguished from Eustasius de Portu’s Distinctiones Holcot with an incipit Abicere debemus.

I have recently been working through Lambeth 221. Between folios 55vb and 154rb the manuscript contains three distinct (I think) texts. The first (ff.58vb–145vb) is a distinctiones collection that, following Sharpe et al., should be attributed to Eustasius de Portu (incipit Abicere debemus). Following that text is another work (ff. 146ra–148vb) that seems to be an incomplete text that provides a term/name from the Bible and gives some indication where to find that term (like a biblical index). Finally, the third text (ff. 146ra–148vb) is the work, again following Sharpe and others, that should be attributed to Holcot (incipit Abominabitur autem Deus tales). However, this work seems to be a table keyed to another text, and not an independent collection of distinctiones.  To help clarify the problem, I have now consulted Basel A II 26.  Here are a few notes (related to Holcot) about the content. There are four texts in this fourteenth-century ms. (which originated from the Dominican House in Basel) that are relevant to Holcot’s corpus:

(1) Robert Holcot, Super librum Ecclesiastici (prologue). Folios 104ra–105va.

Header: Principium Holkot in Ecclesiasticum.
Incipit: Omnis sapientia a domino deo est (eccl. 1:1), magister et dominus Gundisalinus libro suo de ortu scientiarum…
Explicit: Principium Holkot in librum Ecclesiasticum.

This work was also printed in Venice (1509) where the corresponding text (the prologue) is designated as lectio 1 (ff. A 2ra–A 3rb).

(2) Robert Holcot, Super librum Ecclesiastici (Eccl. 1:1-38).

IncipitOmnis sapientia… (Eccl. 1:1), Beatus Augustinus 4 De doctrina Christiana, c. 12
ExplicitAttende [in] illis…circa primum est notandum.

As noted above, this work was printed in Venice (1509) and is found there as lectiones II-XIV (ff. A 3rb–B 4vb). The version found in the Basel ms. is incomplete and breaks off midway through what is lectio XIV in Venice 1509.

(3) Robert Holcot, Moralitates. Folios 138rb–140va.

In marg.: Moralizatio ymaginum dearum etc.
Incipit: Theodosius de vita Alexandri. Rex sicilie alexandrum ad convivium invitavit.

This work collects 20 of Holcot’s Moralitates. The individual moralizations are noted in the margin. I have confirmed that the moralizations are consistent with those found in the Basel edition of Holcot’s Moralitates (though I have not checked every instance).

(4) Eustasius de Porto (?), Collationes moralitatum postillae Roberti Holcot per ordinem alphabeti dispositae. Folios 230ra–255vb.

Header: Collationes seu distinctiones moralitatum postille magistri Roberti Holkott abreviate et per ordinem alphabeti abstracte per fratrem Eustasium de portu usque ad litteram.
Incipit: Abicere. Abicere debemus divicias temporales quia repellunt veritatem.

This text, as noted above, is claimed to be by Eustasius de Porto (by Sharpe and others). The collection of distinctiones here is consistent with the collection found in Lambeth 221 discussed above.  The list of terms begins with Abicere and concludes (in Basel A II 26) with the term Gratiarum on folio 255vb. Thus, this work corresponds with the text found in Lambeth 221, folios 58va–90rb. Unlike the Lambeth manuscript, the Basel version of Eustasius’s work is incomplete and does not contain the work (alleged to be by Holcot) with the incipit Abominabitur autem Deus tales. This takes us no further towards understanding the relationship between (or authorship of)  Abicere debemus and Abominabitur autem Deus, but at least we have a few more data points.

A fellow colleague and friend, Marjorie Burghart, shared the list of terms from Lambeth 221.  Here I add to her list the foliation for Basel A II 26 (of course, the majority of the work is hers).  Lambeth 221-Basel A.II.26 (Table of Terms).

Robert Holcot’s Obligational Theology: Re-Reading the Potentia Dei Absoluta

In his recent study (Moral Dilemmas in Medieval Thought: From Gratian to Aquinas), M. V. Dougherty considers the Odium Dei dilemma (i.e., could God establish that the odium Dei, or hatred of God, is meritorious for human salvation?). In his discussion of William of Ockham and Robert Holcot Dougherty makes the following claim:

Ockham’s followers…inherited the Odium Dei Dilemma. It could not escape their notice as it provided a key touchstone in illustrating the lengths to which one who subscribes to a wide notion of potentia absoluta could be required to go. If the present moral order is truly contingent in all respects, it could be replaced with an entirely different moral order. Some followers of Ockham, such as the English Dominican Robert Holcot (c. 1290-1349), accepted Ockham’s position in unmitigated form, arguing for the possibility that God could command odium Dei and that the agent’s fulfillment of that command would be meritorious (Dougherty, p. 166). [Nota bene: there is a footnote following this passage to L. Kennedy’s problematic work,The Philosophy of Robert Holcot: Fourteenth-Century Skeptic.]

What I want to argue briefly here is that this passage is problematic as an interpretation of Robert Holcot’s theology: in particular the claim that (for Holcot) the present moral order is “contingent in all respects.” In this passage Dougherty (evidently following L. Kennedy) argues for a strong voluntarist reading of the potentia absoluta, such that it implies the contingency of the moral order “in all respects.” However, this is simply not what Holcot argues. [Nota bene: I am also unsure what the sentence “…illustrating the lengths to which one who subscribes to a wide notion of potentia absoluta could be required to go” actually means. It is unclear what either a wide notion of the potentia absoluta would be, or what the alleged requirements would be.]

Holcot’s understanding of the absolute power of God and ordained power of God must be interpreted alongside his obligational theology and his emphasis on the covenant. First, regarding Holcot’s obligational theology, it is clear that for Holcot the rules of the obligational arts (obligationes) provide a complex analogy for how God interacts with humanity (see Gelber, It Could Have Been Otherwise, p. 173ff.). According to this analogy, God has ordained a particular moral order (or dispensation) but always has the right to change from one order to another. This analogy is used by Holcot to interpret the alleged contradictions between God’s law as presented in the Old Testament (e.g., Animal sacrifice is necessary as part of the forgiveness of sins) and the New Testament (e.g., Animal sacrifice is not necessary…). In fact, following the broader medieval tradition Holcot distinguishes between three ages: a time before God’s law / ante legem (i.e. a time ruled by the law of nature); (2) a time under the law / sub lege (i.e, the time from the Mosaic law until Christ); (3) and a time under grace / sub gratia (i.e, the time from Christ up through the present, also rendered post legem). Further, Holcot defends the claim that God could (and indeed might) usher in a new dispensation (which could change the parameters of the moral order, etc.). However, Holcot is clear that God never acts inordinately within a given order or dispensation and that He binds Himself to that order (in fact, Holcot argues that it would involve God in a contradiction to violate or change the rules of a given order). This is the covenantal aspect of Holcot’s theology; God has made a covenant with humanity in each dispensation and binds Himself to that given order.

Returning to the claim that according to Holcot the current moral order is “contingent in all respects”—it must be insisted that this is simply not the case. Holcot argues that the current moral order is ordained by God and that God will not act inordinately within a given order. Of course, following Ockham et al., he will also argue that God could (according to his absolute power) violate the current moral order. But, as F. Hoffmann, H. Gelber, H. Oberman, W. Courtenay, F. Oakley and others have convincingly demonstrated, that is a logical distinction between what God has ordained and what He could logically do (as Ockham insists in Quodlibet 6, q. 1, a. 1, this is purely a logical distinction: “this distinction should not be understood to mean that in God there are really two powers, one of which is ordained and the other of which is absolute. For with respect to things outside Himself there is in God a single power, which in every way is God Himself.”). It seems that a close reading of Ockham’s Quodlibet 6 should dispel the primarily voluntarist reading of the absolute power of God defended in the older literature (e.g. L. Kennedy).

By way of conclusion I want to insist that while I found Dougherty’s reading of Holcot (and Ockham) to be somewhat problematic, this should not be taken as a general critique of his book. In many ways I found his work useful and insightful (in particular his reading of Gratian, William of Auxerre, Raymond Lull, and Thomas Aquinas).

Pseudo-Holcot: “His Shoulders were Broad Enough to Carry Any Amount of ‘Spuria'”

The manuscripts containing Robert Holcot’s Moralitates often contain several other works that are attributed to him. In her studies of Holcot’s Moralitates and John Ridevall’s (the Franciscan mythographer) Fulgentius metaforalis, Beryl Smalley quips that “Holcot’s shoulders were broad enough to carry any amount of spuria.” [Beryl Smalley, Studies in Medieval Thought and Learning From Abelard to Wyclif (London, 1981), 376.] The present blog post is about the Pseudo-Holcot and the numerous texts that, in various manuscripts, were attributed to Holcot.

The first manuscript is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, lat., ms. 590 (available online). This work contains three texts that are attributed to Holcot. They include:

  •  Moralitates (ff. 73r-99v),
  •  Imagines Fulgentii moralisatae (ff. 99v-115r), and
  •  Aenigmata Aristotelis moralisata (ff. 115r-119r).

The explicit of each text (ff. 99v, 115r, and 119r) states that the works are by “Robert Holcoth,” or “per euisdem.” A similar situation is found in Universitätsbibliothek Salzburg, ms. M II 186. This manuscript attributes the following works to Holcot:

  • Moralitates (ff. 177va-228rb),
  • Maria quatuor virtutes habuit (ff. 177va-198rb),
  • Imagines Fulgentii (ff. 198rb-210rb), and
  • Aenigmata Aristotelis (ff. 210va-213rb).

Finally, a third manuscript (also available online) Germany, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Sal., ms. VII, 104 attributes numerous texts to Holcot, including:

  • Moralitates (ff. 1r-30v),
  • Imagines Fulgentii moralisatae sive Fulgentius Metaforalis (ff. 30v-48r) (by, John Ridevall),
  • Imagines Fulgentii, sive De imaginibus virtutum (ff. 48r-65r),
  • Aenigmata Aristotelis moralisata (ff. 65r-70r), and
  • Declamationes Senecae moralisatae (ff. 70r-93v) (by, Nicholas of Trevet).

This particular manuscript is interesting because these texts are collected as a group and given a table of terms [Tabula in libros praecedentes (ff. 93v-99v)] that identifies specific sections of these texts (numerically) with various themes.  This table makes the group of texts searchable by a reader, but also seems to imply that the group of texts has a particular unity. This is also assumed in the explicit, which, instead of following the individual works is included at the end, prior to the table (93v). ‘Holcoth’ is mentioned twice, marked off in red. See:

UB Sal. ms. VII 104, f. 93v

Of all of these texts, Holcot was probably the author of the Moralitates but none of the others. There is little to conclude at this point, other than that Smalley is correct in her judgement that Holcot was influential enough to “carry any amount of spuria.” The broader conclusion one can make is that scholars should be incredibly cautious in ascribing authorship to Holcot based on manuscript attribution alone.

For further information the reader is directed to Hans Liebeschütz’s critical edition of John Ridevall’s Fulgentius Metaforalis (Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der antiken Mythologie im Mittelalter) (Leipzig, 1926). Beyond the critical edition the work also contains a useful introduction that discusses spurious works, such as a collection whose incipit reads Refert Fulgentius and is found in many such collections (pp. 47-53).

An Overlooked Manuscript of Robert Holcot’s Commentary on the Sentences: Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, ms. A. XI. 36.

The most comprehensive list cataloging the manuscripts of Robert Holcot’s commentary on the Sentences is that provided by Katherine Tachau and Paul Streveler in Seeing the Future Clearly: Questions on Future Contingents by Robert Holcot (PIMS, 1995), 36-38 (see the list, here). They list 48 extant manuscripts of Holcot’s commentary.

Today (while looking through the library catalog of the Basel University Library) I found an entry for Robert Holcot listed as a commentary on the Sentences. The library record (here) indicates that the manuscript contains 153 folios and that the commentary is found on folios 1ra-122ra. Further, the record provides an incipit (i.e., Utrum quilibet viator existens in gratia, assentiendo articulis fidei, mereatur vitam aeternam) that is consistent with other versions of Holcot’s commentary (e.g., Lyon 1518, Troyes 634, Mazarine 905; although not Oriel 15, which, if I remember right, begins De obiecto actus…). I speak of other versions, only because Holcot’s commentary on the Sentences is preserved in numerous manuscripts that often retain radically diverse orderings of the questions (this has led Tachau and Streveler to offer a “Proposed Ordering of the Questions”, 197-199). Again, according to the library record, the colophon gives a date of January 2, 1429.

While it is premature to assert that this is definitively another manuscript containing Holcot’s commentary on the Sentences, it seems probable at this point to assume that it is. I will (probably) be in Basel this spring working on another project and should be able to confirm the attribution at that time. More to come.

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