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.


A call for papers to organize a workshop at the:

XVIIth International Conference on Patristics Studies

Oxford University

10 August-14 August 2015

The XVIIth Oxford Patristics Conference (hereafter OPC) will take place in the Examination Schools on High Street, Oxford during August of 2015. The general call for papers has been issued (see: and the deadline for both short communications (i.e., individual papers) and workshops is 31 December 2014.  The present call for papers is to organize a workshop on Augustine in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology within the nachleben (lit. ‘after life’) subdivision of the OPC. This subdivision treats the reception of the patristic tradition within subsequent Church history.

Within the OPC a workshop is defined as a conglomerate of up to 12 papers focused on an individual theme that can lead to a separate Studia Patristica volume dedicated to the topic at hand. The goal of the present workshop is to organize a group of 10 to 12 papers that examine the reception of Augustine of Hippo’s thought in the late medieval period (i.e., the late 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries). Given the recent literature on the reception of Augustine in the Medieval Latin West (e.g., K. Pollman (ed.) et al., The Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine; E.L. Saak, Creating Augustine), the organizers think that the time is ripe for a workshop dedicated to the proposed topic. Thus, we welcome paper proposals examining the influence of Augustine’s thought in late medieval philosophy or theology. In particular, we welcome proposals (c. 200-250 words) that consider heretofore un-studied or understudied works. Textually, the workshop hopes to include studies of: the Sentences commentary tradition; Biblical commentaries; and commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus. Studies are particularly encouraged on understudied members of the Hermits of Saint Augustine (O.E.S.A) or the largely neglected commentaries on the Lombard’s Sentences by members of the Cistercian Order (O.Cist.). That said, we welcome paper proposals on any topic examining the influence of Augustine’s thought in late medieval philosophy or theology.

Please submit proposals [and/or questions] to either:

John T. Slotemaker at: johnslotemaker [at] gmail [dot] com


Jeffrey C. Witt at: jeffreycwitt [at] gmail [dot] com

Deadline for Submissions: 1 October 2014

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

Düsseldorf, Universitäts-und Landesbibliothek, ms. F.5

Robert Holcot: A Fourth Quodlibetal Manuscript? (see: Ms. F.5)

In a recent article Rondo Keele stated that Düsseldorf, Universitäts-und Landesbibliothek, ms. F.5 (hereafter F.5) contained “determinationes” that should be considered in future editions of Holcot’s quodlibetal questions. While Keele does not explicitly claim that F.5 should be given the same weight as the Cambridge, London, or Oxford manuscripts, he does strongly imply that F.5 should be consulted in future editions (by noting that Tachau and Gelber did not include F.5 in their respective editions, given that it was not known at the time, etc.).  However, it should be noted that in his article Keele also implies that he did not actually consult the manuscript itself but knows of its existence through the online catalogue. (see the essay in: Theological Quodlibeta in the Middle Ages: The Fourteenth Century (Brill, 2007) p. 691, fn. 72).

F.5 is now available online (see the link above) and a closer examination demonstrates that it is of no use in reconstructing or editing Holcot’s quodlibetal debates.  What is interesting about the text is that it is identical to the Lyon edition printed in 1505 (see Here) and 1510 (and Here) (these are not the 1518 Lyon edition reprinted by Minerva, but the one edited by J. Badius, A. de Benevento and Iohanne Cleyn Alemano). Lyon 1510 and F.5 contain the exact same texts (i.e., Sentences, Conf., De imputabilitate, and Determinationes) and they have the same exact table of questions and tabula alphabetica. The similarities also include the same introductory remarks prefacing each text: e.g., “Clarissimi et longe... etc.”  Finally, F.5 contains some omissions and deletions, and of the ones I checked all are present in the Lyon edition of 1510 (that is, if a sentence or word is dropped from F.5 and added in the margin, one notes that it is included in the 1510 edition).  However, the clincher is that the colophon for F.5 gives a date of 1512.  It reads: “per manus fratris Henrici de Speis (de Ipeis?) Demborch, etc.  Anno domini 1512“.

See the colophon on f. 325rb:


The only logical conclusion is that F.5 is a manuscript copied from the early printed edition (or perhaps copied from the manuscript used to produce the early printed edition). As such, this sixteenth-century manuscript is of no use for editing Holcot’s quodlibetal questions.

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.