Book Review: A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages (Noel Harold Kaylor and Philip Edward Phillips)—Review by Sean Tandy

Book Review: A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages. Edited by Noel Harold Kaylor and Philip Edward Phillips. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pp. 661. €205,00/$273.00. ISBN 13: 9789004183544

As one volume in a series dedicated to “the intellectual and religious life of Europe, 500-1800,” Brill’s new A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages is an attempt to describe the influence of one of the most significant figures in shaping that tradition: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524/5 AD). Kaylor’s and Phillips’ volume includes essays by leading scholars on a wide range of topics that focus on the literary, philosophic, and scientific influence Boethius had upon a millennium of European intellectual activity. Followed by a thorough annotated bibliography, A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages is clearly meant to serve both as a reference work and a supplement to earlier collections of essays on Boethius and Boethian reception, as the essays that make up the volume strive to both summarize earlier scholarship and offer new contributions to ongoing scholarly debates.

The articles in this volume are divided into roughly three different segments along thematic lines. After an introduction that situates Boethius in his historical context in Late Antiquity, the next five essays all cover technical aspects of Boethius’ legacy focusing on mathematics, science, and philosophy. Contributions include Stephen C. McCluskey’s reconstruction of Boethius’ views on the nature of the heavenly spheres and the reception of these ideas in medieval astrology. Jean-Yves Guillaumin’s article treats Boethius’ mathematical works and the influence that they had in the Medieval West through the preservation of Greek mathematic knowledge and the spread of the key concept of the quadrivium. Both of these essays elucidate, for the non-specialist, the details of their technical and difficult subject matters in a remarkably lucid manner and are aided to this end by the use of some well-designed diagrams. In a different vein, Siobhan Nash-Marshall’s and John Patrick Casey’s contributions explore Boethian influence on theology and metaphysics while tackling the thorny issues as to Boethius’ ‘originality’ as a thinker.  One particularly standout article in this portion is Rosalind C. Love’s very thorough analysis of the commentary and gloss tradition of the Consolation of Philosophy.

Love’s chapter is essential for understanding the second segment of the companion, dedicated to Boethian reception in several vernacular literatures, since many of these vernacular translations and adaptions of Boethius utilize, or even incorporate, much of the explanatory material found in these glosses. The subsequent five articles focus on translations of the Consolation of Philosophy into Old and Middle English, as well as medieval French, Italian and German. These essays do not merely function as ‘literary histories,’ cataloging authors, texts, dates, and the scholarship, but also offer new arguments about Boethian influence in each respective tradition. For example, Paul E. Szarmach’s contribution investigates the Alfredian translation of Boethius’ seminal work, describing the Alfredian program of translation, the possibility of the direct involvement of King Alfred, the nature of translation, the influence of glosses and other early exegesis upon the shape of the translation, and the various omissions and additions utilized to translate the Consolation for an Anglo-Saxon audience. Szarmarch is careful throughout to note the opinions of important scholars about each of these issues under discussion. In addition, Szarmach also adds his own contribution to the debate about the possible influence of the Old English Consolation on other pieces of Old English literature such as Deor and Beowulf.

The next two essays of the companion discuss the decline of Boethius’ influence in the later medieval and early modern period. Mark T. Rimple’s essay, “The Enduring Legacy of Boethian Harmony,” explores the decline of Boethian influence vis-à-vis late medieval and early modern concepts of music while Ann E. Moyer’s contribution explores ways in which different, and more specialized, branches of mathematical study eventually wore down Boethius’ tidy concepts about mathematics and its role in relation to art and philosophy leading to a decline in the use of Boethian texts in the schools of Europe. The final essay, an ‘afterword,’ by Fabio Troncarelli is a passionate and rather poetic tribute to Boethius the man and to his intellectual achievements, which led so many medieval authors to admire and imitate him. It is an inspiring essay that is both informative and a delight to read.

The final element of the Companion is the “Chronology and Selected Annotated Bibliography” that “is intended to be a general guide for graduate students and seasoned scholars alike” (551). The bibliography is well laid out, succinctly annotated, and covers a suitably wide range of publications including critical editions and translations of Boethian texts as well as monographs and articles about Boethius and his influence. Though the selections largely focus on English materials, an appropriate amount of scholarship in other languages is also included. Although some entries are a bit outdated, the bibliography mostly represents current and significant contributions to the scholarship of Boethius in the middle ages. It should serve its target audience well as a guide for commencing research.

Kaylor and Philips’ collection serves its basic function as a companion and bibliography admirably though it is not without its drawbacks. Minor blemishes include typos and some odd formatting. Additionally, there are inconsistencies regarding the translation of terms or passages from other languages, Greek and Middle English for example. Such terms and passages were translated for the reader in some essays, but not others. This irregularity is likely to obfuscate the author’s argument for many readers, depending on their individual backgrounds and facility in the various languages represented in the volume. Overall, however, such deficiencies are very minor in a collection of such good essays.

A more serious charge could be leveled against the volume, that of incompleteness. As the volume is clearly intended to be an alternative to two items cited in the bibliography, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius (edited by John Marenbon, Cambridge, 2009) and Kaylor and Philips’ own New Directions in Boethian Studies (Kalamazoo, 2007), it is worth noting how this volume differs from those previous collections. The Cambridge edition was compiled for undergraduates and therefore focuses upon the Consolation and the theological works without paying mind to Boethius’ influence in the areas of arithmetic or music, two areas in which the Companion excels. The Cambridge volume similarly focuses more on Boethius in a late-ancient context and largely bypasses his reception in the medieval world. Along these lines, only one chapter of the Cambridge Companion deals with the reception of Boethius, whereas the Brill Companion has several chapters dedicated to that very theme. Yet this is also true of New Directions in Boethian Studies, which also has chapters dealing with Medieval Italian, French, and English reception as well as one on Medieval Spain, which the Brill volume is lacking. Neither volume deals explicitly with the literary reception of Boethius in the two non-vernacular languages of Medieval Europe: Latin and Byzantine Greek (the later is a subject treated by no book or article cited in the bibliography) which are traditions that would likely appeal to a broad range of medievalists. Furthermore, New Directions includes essays about Boethian themes in the visual culture of Western Europe, a topic that would hardly be out of place in a volume dedicated to the religious and intellectual life of Medieval Europe.

But even if A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages treats many of the same subjects as those earlier collections and has some regrettable omissions, this barely detracts from the overall quality of the volume. After all, to compile, in one volume, essays covering all of the various areas over which Boethius asserted a significant influence would be a nearly impossible task. The essays in Brill’s Companion touch on a great many topics important to Boethian studies and not only give a succinct overview of the various issues in each field of inquiry, but also supply new contributions to many of these on-going debates. The Companion provides essential reading for those interested in Boethian Studies, the History and Philosophy of Science, and Translation Studies. Additionally, individual essays also prove useful to scholars and students in a variety of other disciplines such as theology, music theory, or French literature.

Sean Tandy

Sean Tandy is a PhD student in the Department of Classical Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. His interests include late ancient poetry and poetics (in both Latin and Greek), Ostrogothic Italy, Boethius, and Boethian reception. Currently he is the preliminary stages of his dissertation research.

Cited works

Kaylor, Noel Harold & Phillips, Philip Edward [eds.], New Directions in Boethian Studies. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007.

Marenbon, Jon [ed.], The Cambridge Companion to Boethius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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