Free! Database of manuscripts containing Latin Saint’s Lives – at the Bollandists

I’ve been looking for manuscripts of the “Life” of St Nicholas by John the Deacon.  In the process I have just come across something very useful.

This is the “Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Online” (although it doesn’t contain the BHL info) or Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina manuscripta (BHLms) database.  And … it is free!  You have to enter your name and email address,but then you can do what you want.

It’s hosted at the Société des Bollandistes.  Look under “online resources“.  The direct URL is here.  Click on Recherche, enter your name and email address (why?) and then you are in.

I clicked on “Trouver un texte hagiographique d’après son numéro BHL“, and entered 6104, which is the BHL number for the first part of John the Deacon’s Life.  This led to a page on the text, and then

Liste des manuscrits transmettant ce texte, décrits dans les catalogues des Bollandistes: par fonds ou par siècle.

Clicking on “fonds” – i.e. the libraries that hold the manuscripts – gave me a list ordered by library.  “siècle” gave me an even more useful list, in date order, thereby allowing me to concentrate on the earliest mss.  What I got was this:

Screen grab of the oldest manuscripts of John the deacon’s “Life of St Nicholas”

Note the statement at the top: 121 manuscripts counted in the catalogues published by the Bollandists.  That too is useful information.

The links do not lead to online manuscripts.  So it’s Google time.

Googling for “Chartres manuscrits” led me to a web page.  From this I learned that the Americans bombed Chartres in the war and destroyed half of its manuscripts, and cooked the rest.  But some survive.  A full list is here.  It turned out that the Bollandist “Ms. 68” now has the shelfmark ms.27, and … appears in the list of destroyed manuscripts.  So no luck, then.  The link to the catalogue info for it is here.

Googling for “Orleans manuscrits”, the next item, brought up a website alright: the “Aurelia – Bibliotheque numerique d’Orleans“.  I entered “342” in the search, and, among other cruft, got a picture of a manuscript cover and “Views de saints et Sermons”, 342, Xe, XIe, et XII siecles”.  That looked OK, so I clicked on it and got … catalogue stuff.  A bit more experimenting and I found you have to click on the *image* itself.  There are facilities to download the manuscript, but unfortunately someone – a paperpusher, one fears – has limited it to 4 pages at a time.

The Life is supposedly at the start, but the very first page that one sees is damaged.  There are several references to St Nicholas tho.  It looks as if the cover was removed at some point, and the parchment is worn by being coverless for some period.  Turning the page reveals pen trials; turning again reveals a modern list of contents, and then the first page of the text (click to enlarge):

Orleans – manuscript 342, folio 6r. Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon (BHL 6104)

The note at the top of the page – “Monasterii sancti Benedicti Floriacensi” – tells us that prior to the French revolution the ms. belonged to the Benedictine abbey of Fleury.  So here is yet another manuscript online, although it took a fair bit of clicking to get it.

The Bollandist list of mnuscripts is inevitably incomplete.  I know of other manuscripts of this particular Latin text, thanks to the entry in the Clavis Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Aevi: Italiae volume, which has an entry for John the Deacon / John of Naples, and which was the source that led me to the BHL Online.  But it’s still an invaluable resource.

Recommended.

More on Mombritius, and John the Deacon’s “Life of St Nicholas”

The first collection to be printed of the lives of the saints was issued in Milan in 1477 by Mombritius in two large folio volumes.  These featured forms of the text which differed from subsequent collectors such as Lipomani, Surius and of course the Bollandists.  But the volumes became so rare that two monks of the Solesmenses monastery in 1910 found it worthwhile to produce a fresh edition of it.[1]

In fact the original volumes are now online, here (vol.1) and here (vol.2) thanks to the Bavarian State Library (=Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, BSB).  The latter resource is becoming really invaluable for high-quality PDFs of early books and manuscripts.

Over the last couple of days I have been OCRing the text of the life of St Nicholas found in the 1910 reprint, which I obtained from Archive.org a few days ago.  This I finished this afternoon.  It was interesting to look through it, word by word.  The monks reproduced even the printer’s mistakes – “qni” for “qui”! – although they did mark these with a little superscript “+”.  Likewise they indicated the end of the column and end of the page with “|” and “||” respectively.  I was obliged to read the Latin introduction with some care to determine the meaning of both these codes.

Once I had produced a Word document, I was distracted.  Word complained about the number of spelling errors, and this led me to wonder if there was a Latin language spell-checker for Word.  Indeed there is!   It’s called COL, and may be downloaded for free from here.  It’s not perfect, but it does catch a lot.

But the longer I looked at the Mombritius text, the less I liked it.  The punctuation is weird, the spelling is eccentric, and so forth.  So it looks as if I shall be using  the Falconius edition of 1751 instead, as the base for my translation, but consulting Mombritius.

This is a familar feeling.  We had this with the Life of St Valentine of Terni.  It’s not just a matter of translating a text.  First find your text; and then you find that you must actually make your text yourself, from such pre-critical texts as are around.  For St Valentine I felt obliged to include the text that I had made in order to translate it.  It looks as if I shall be obliged to do the same here for John the Deacon.

This is annoying.  I do not want or need to start editing texts.  That is a quite separate enterprise.  So my texts are not critical texts.  They are simply what I could find, edited to remove annoying errors of spelling and punctuation, to produce a readable Latin text.

At this point I found myself wondering just why the texts of such major saints are not available in modern critical editions.  The St Valentine was only available in the Bollandist edition of 1658 (!) and in a modern critical edition with very odd spelling.

For John the Deacon we are less lucky, as the Bollandists have not managed to produce an edition of his work, despite four centuries of work.  But then four centuries pass easily if you don’t do much in them.  The Bollandists last printed a volume of the Acta Sanctorum in 1940.  That is nearly 80 years ago.  Since then they have only produced a couple of ancillary volumes.  Producing critical texts of the Lives of the Saints is what the Bollandists exist to do.  So what the heck are they doing with their time?  It seems to me that they need a kick up the backside.

  1. [1]These details I owe to a brief review by H. Omont, found in Persee.fr here.