Four versus Five: A little conundrum in John Milton’s Christian Doctrine

Sunday, June 16th, 2013 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

John Hale writes…

The editing of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana which Donald Cullington and I have now completed (September 2012), is prompting fresh enquiries, mercifully shorter. One tiny specimen is the conundrum, Why Milton’s text makes a mistake in saying (MS 362, Oxford edition p. 762) that the celebrant at a Roman Catholic Mass “murmurs four words [Hoc est corpus meum, This is my body]” whereas a celebrant, now as then, must say five [Hoc est enim corpus meum, For this is my body]. The five are required by papal ordinance, many times printed so, millions of times said. The words of the institution of the Eucharist are parataxis, but in the liturgy are run into the syntax of the whole utterance by Jesus at the Last Supper so as to give the reason why (enim, “for”) the disciples, then believers, are to “take and eat.” Although the discrepancy makes no substantive difference, what does its occurrence signify?

In context, Milton is taking over from his main theological source, Wollebius, a forthright listing of some seven points of difference between the Roman and the Protestant versions of the Eucharist, ranging from liturgical practice to high theology (transubstantiation, what happens to the bread when eaten). Milton keeps close to the seven points, and keeps much of the Latin wording, for instance the point here that the celebrant of a Mass “murmurs the words downwards” (demurmurat) by contrast with their open proclamation in a Protestant, commemorative rite. So the differentiating between four and five is part of the appropriating. It may be casual or deliberate: the fact remains that Wollebius knows what the priest says, in the obligatory Latin of the Mass, while Milton distorts the wording. The little puzzle is compounded by the fact that in the original Greek of the biblical words of institution there were not four, but five (1 Corinthians 11. 24, touto mou estin to soma. The three Synoptic gospels have the same five words, albeit with mou at the end). Milton’s change is purely within the Latin, and concerns his use of the Protestant Latin translation of Junius-Trenellius-Beza. What reasons, conscious or unintended, may have led him to think in Latin and say “four”?

Possible reasons include: (a) scribal error in Milton’s manuscript (b) Milton couldn’t count (c) he couldn’t read Wollebius, being blind (d) he omits what is a mere detail of Catholic liturgy (e) he insists on the biblical Latin (f) something else and (g) some combination of these. The lengthy experience of transcribing the MS, and editing and translating it, should have some speculation or inference to offer. I think it does.

Mere scribal error is unlikely. The scribe at this point is Jeremie Picard, a professional scribe making a fair copy. The evidence abounds that Milton, despite blindness, had his MS read back to him, and made changes both small and large, from piffling corrections to rethinking matters of substance. So even if the scribe misheard or couldn’t count, Milton checked.

Milton’s scheme of exactly fifty chapters, both for De Doctrina and for his connected Art of Logic, suggests he could count adequately. Not to wax indignant about a slur on his numeracy, this suggestion should be dismissed because of the manifest care he took, for decades, with the arrangement and detail alike in the work he termed his most valued possession.

The third idea is no better. Milton had teams of readers to read out to him. In hearing not reading Wollebius, he did not lose his grip.

The fourth reason has more to it. In hearing Wollebius read to him, Milton might well, in composing on that basis, take on board his source’s gist as much as his wording. There are plenty of instances of his varying and changing or extending Wollebius while essentially agreeing with his view. In that case, he heard “five” but dictated “four.”

This reason would blend into the next, that he ignored what was a mere detail of Catholic practice. It made no material difference to his argument.

But the next reason is alternative to that last one: it did matter to him, and he overrode exactitude in favour of the words of “scripture alone,” scriptura duntaxat as he insists in his title and everywhere. By this reasoning, he would be insisting on the Latin wording, where it was four, not the Greek or whatever underlay that. If this looks pedantic, at least it is not carelessness. And Milton was well capable of pedantry, as any consideration of his remarks about Latin lexis or pronunciation would confirm. Etymology is a favourite weapon.

A wider question arises: how did Milton know the Roman belief and practice? How well did he know it? How did he inform himself? Was it mainly from Protestant printed polemic? Or from any practising Catholics, for example from the friends made in his Italian Lehrjahre and its subsequent correspondence? Which Catholic writers does he quote in De Doctrina, and has he read them in the original?