< Back to previous page


Questions of life and death. An inquiry into the reception of Aristotle’s De longitudine et brevitate vitae in the Middle Ages

The Parva Naturalia (PN) is a collection of short Aristotelian texts complementary to his Treatise on the soul (De anima). They discuss the functions that are common to body and soul and thus form the bridge between Aristotelian psychology and zoology. As such they are essential to understand how Aristotle connects the traditional conception of the soul as a principle of movement with a science of the living being and how he conceptualizes the unity of body and soul (GRELLARD – MOREL 2010). The Parva Naturalia fall apart in two major parts: the first part (PN1, sometimes labeled as "psychological" PN) consists of treatises on sensation, memory, recollection, sleep, and dreaming. In the second part (PN2, "physiological" PN), which consists of On Length and Shortness of Life (De longitudine et brevitate vitae Long.) and On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration (De iuventute et senectute, De vita et morte, De respiratione – Iuv.), the emphasis is on how the soul acts upon and is supported by physical processes. It is on this second part, and especially on Long., that the project focuses. More concretely, it studies the Greek-Latin translation of this text, made in the twelfth century by James of Venice, and its reception. Of particular importance is the observation that medieval scholars used this text as a vehicle to combine Aristotelian philosophy with ideas from other authors, particularly in the realm of medical theory, and also left room for considering the ethical dimension of aging and dying (DUNNE 2009).


(1) The first objective of this project is the critical edition and study of the translation of Long., which was made by James of Venice. This edition is an urgent desideratum of many scholars studying medieval philosophy, as is shown by the increasing attention for the PN. These editions will eventually be published in the Aristoteles Latinus series  and also be made available online via the Aristoteles Latinus Database. To do so, I will rely on the methodology established within the Aristoteles Latinus project for the editing of translations that were part of the Corpus Vetustius (see e.g. BRAMS – BOSSIER 1990 and RUBINO 2009). Attention will be paid not only to reconstructing the “original” translation but also, and even more importantly, to the various forms in which the translatio vetus of Long. (eventually in a highly corrupted form) circulated: knowing these forms and thus knowing what kind of text was at the disposal of medieval authors is a prerequisite for a correct understanding of the commentaries and theories of these authors. Moreover, the editing of the translations will also shed light on the relation between this text and the Greek original. Since the translations predate most of the preserved Greek Aristotle manuscripts, it is, parallel to what we know for other treatises, to be expected that a study of the Latin translation, which is extremely literal, will also be relevant for the study of the Greek text and its tradition. The study of both the different forms in which the Latin translation circulated and of its Greek sources will enable us also to visualize semantic shifts that happened in the process of the text’s translation and transmission.


(2) The second objective is a systematic study of the medieval reception of the translatio vetus of Long. In order to do so, I will focus on the marginal and interlinear annotations and marks in the manuscripts that contain the translation. The novelty and the relevance of the research project that I propose is highly manifest in this objective. Marginal and interlinear annotations on medieval translations of Aristotelian natural philosophy have almost never been studied systematically (and certainly not for Long.); when they were studied – as in the case of the so-called Oxford gloss –, attention was paid only to the manuscripts containing that particular gloss, and not to the other, equally glossed manuscripts. However, it has been argued that marginal and interlinear annotations are a major source for knowledge about the effectiveness of a translation, about its appropriation or refutation by a public that is not (or not necessarily) identical with the authors of commentaries on Aristotle, about the emergence of new philosophical thoughts, and about the role played by various cultures in this process (e.g. BASWELL 1992, DE LEEMANS 2010, TEEUWEN 2012). A systematic and comparative study of all glosses on a so widely disseminated translation in the Corpus Aristotelicum can thus be expected to be highly revealing and to refine views on the reception of Long. that resort from the study of other sources. The glosses will be examined from a twofold perspective:


(2a) First, we will study the doctrinal content of the glosses in a diachronic perspective. Among the topics to be addressed here are: what are the major doctrinal points of attention for readers? Do these points of attention change as time passes by? Of special interest is the question whether readers and glossators enter into discussion with the texts, thus shedding light on the appropriation or refutation of Aristotelian natural philosophy in the thirteenth century, which at that time was relatively new and often contested. Moreover, we will investigate if they approached Long. from a philosophical, medical or ethical point of view, the text being applicable and applied – as DUNNE 2009 has shown – in all these domains. Finally, attention will be devoted to how they define the position of Long. in the PN.


(2b) Another topic to be discussed is the intertextuality found in the annotations. Whereas some of them are likely to be personal considerations of an individual scribe or result from notes taken during class, others will be taken over from other, pre-existing sources. This opens the question about the formation of new authorities in medieval philosophical and scientific discourse: a systematic analysis of glosses might well reveal the predominance of certain commentators in the intellectual discourse on a given text or theme (e.g. when all glosses are inspired by the commentary of Magister X), showing a shift of authority from Aristotle to the commentator. Also at stake here is the question about the glosses’ sources – to what extent are they based on texts written originally in Latin or rather on Greek-Latin or Arabic-Latin translations? Are all glosses written into Latin or also in the vernacular? What is the role played by (the Latin translation of) Averroes’s paraphrase of the PN? This will enable us to assess the ‘multicultural’ profile of the study of the PN, and to contribute to answering a recently much debated question on the early influence of Arabic learning on Western thought.


This research will then be confronted, in a second stage, with the more traditional approach of studying medieval Aristotelianism: that is, by charting, inventorying, and studying the commentaries on Long. For this purpose, I will first chart the entire medieval commentary tradition on Long. This will result in an inventory of (ascribed and anonymous) commentaries on this text, including brief descriptions of each commentary, an overview of the extant witnesses,and fragments of the commentaries for allowing identification of manuscripts that might show up in the future. In the comparison of marginal scholarship and the commentary tradition, special attention will be devoted to Adam of Buckfield’s commentary, which might well be a source of the Oxford Gloss, as well as to Albert the Great’s commentary; yet, I will also take into less known commentators and anonymous commentaries. Given the central place of Buckfield in the reception of the Corpus Vetustius, I will also consider the possibility of critically editing this text, so that the most important commentaries on Long., tr. Vetus (Buckfield and Albert) will both be available in modern editions in the near future. By this comprehensive approach it will be possible to considerably complement the studies by DUNNE and to investigate on a much larger scale the early influence of Arabic philosophy in the debate on this text, medieval conceptions on the composition of the PN, and the interaction of natural philosophy, medicine, and ethics in medieval reflections on life and death.

Date:1 Oct 2016  →  1 Oct 2020
Keywords:Aristoteles Latinus
Disciplines:Theory and methodology of philosophy
Project type:PhD project