Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Peter Toth: "In volumine Longobardo": New Light on the Date and Origin of the Latin Translation of the Letters Of St Antony the Great

The seven letters of St Antony of Egypt, after the ground-breaking study of Samuel Rubenson, have been revealed to be one of our earliest sources for Egyptian monastic and ascetic theology of the fourth century. However, the letters, except for some fragments, are not extant in their original Coptic version and the most reliable source we have is a Georgian translation of the seven letters and a complete Latin translation first published in Paris 1516. This Latin version was considered by Samuel Rubenson as a humanist translation made on the basis of a lost Greek original whose view has remained ever since accepted in later scholarship. A deeper examination of the Latin text and its transmission, however, reveals a completely different story. After a thorough analysis of the dedicatory letter in the 1516 edition of the letters I managed to identify the manuscript which served as the basis of the first edition of the letters. In the light of this document, then, the alleged translator of the text, Valerio Sarasio has turned out to be a simple scribe who only copied the Latin version from a manuscript in Urbino. After some research among humanist manuscripts I managed to find this Urbino copy, previously owned by Pico della Mirandola, which contains the letters in a peculiar context: together with the Pastor of Hermas and the old Latin translation of the letters by Ignatius of Antioch. On the basis of this volume – although Rubenson has claimed that the only manuscript he found was a late, 16th century copy of the edited text - I have found some five humanist manuscripts containing the letters in the same context as in Mirandola’s manuscript. This peculiar feature suggests that in the early fifteenth century, similarly to Hermas’s work, the letters of St Antony could have been considered as an intriguing new discovery and that is why they were included in a collection of ‘new acquisitions’ by the humanists. Fortunately, the history of their discovery is recorded in some letters of Ambrogio Traversari who reporting about his trip to a monastery in Padua tells how he discovered the seven “beautiful letters by St Antony the Great” in “an ancient Longobard volume”. This designation generally used to describe the manuscripts of the 10-11th centuries, along with a more extensive stylistic and lingusitic examination of the text seems to suggest that Latin version of the seven letters should possibly be dated to a much earlier period than it was previously thought.

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