Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Long Lost Life of Pope Gregory I

The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great: By an Anonymous Monk of Whitby, translated by Bertram Colgrave. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1968. Pp. ix, 180.

Born in Ireland in 1889, Bertram Colgrave died at Cambridge, England in 1968, the year this book was published. Much of his academic career was focused on the production of facsimiles and critical editions of the lives of saints. For many years, he served as founding editor-in-chief of the series titled Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile.

In The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, Colgrave's "Introduction" takes up the biggest share of the book (1-70). It includes a section on the world into which the anonymous writer was born, a brief critical biography of Gregory the Great, and helpful information about the history of the Benedictine double monastery at Whitby, home to our author. Regarding date, Colgrave argues that the Whitby writer produced his work sometime between 704 and 714, and that traditions about Gregory that circulated at the monastery represent the writer's primary source, along with a "saga tradition" that likely came from Canterbury.

The Whitby writer also knows the Bible, which he quotes or echoes quite often. Colgrave tells us that although our anonymous monk could tell a pretty good story, he is no Latin stylist. In fact, at a number of points in the text the translator has a hard time knowing what the author was trying to say. Colgrave takes up the question of a possible relationship between the writings of Bede and the work produced by the Whitby writer, and concludes that there is no literary connection between the two. He explains that once Bede had finished his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, it immediately overshadowed the work of the Whitby writer, which fell into obscurity. In the modern era, no complete text of the work was issued until 1904.

Next, Colgrave presents the Latin text and his own translation of the work as one would find in the Loeb Classical Library: the original appears on the left side of an opening with the translation on the right (71-139). As the reader discovers, while some of the stories in this life are a bit pedestrian, the Whitby writer is able to include a few entertaining episodes connected to Gregory. For example, once he was identified as the next Pope, Gregory resisted by hiding, going so far as to hire a few local merchants who carried him out of the city in a casket (ch. 7). Above all, and throughout, the writer celebrates Gregory's devotion to the English people. It was by Gregory's distant influence that England became subject and devoted to the authority of the Roman Church.

The text and translation are followed by an impressive set of "Notes" (140-65) and a "Select Bibliography" (166-67), which supplements the works found in Colgrave's list of "Abbreviations" (viii-ix). The "Appendix" is essentially an index of biblical and other ancient sources that the Whitby writer quotes, or to which he alludes. This part of the book would be especially helpful to students who want to investigate the writer's handling of Scripture, or his knowledge and use of the patristic tradition. A good "Index" of places, names, and topics concludes the book (173-80).

Colgrave's work is the ideal, self-contained study of this particular life. Since its publication, it has no doubt raised scholars' awareness and use of this significant document from the eighth century. The work of the anonymous Whitby writer, with apparently no hagiographical sources behind it, provides a good contrast to Bede's Ecclesiastical History, which, in terms of sources, falls at the opposite end of the spectrum.

After reading this fine study, I still have one question: Why is it that "the earliest life of Gregory the Great" was written at least a century after he died?

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