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?


Editing De Doctrina Christiana

Monday, September 24th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

John Hale writes…

The narrative of the editing of De Doctrina Christiana for Oxford’s new The Complete Works of John Milton is like that of the Muppet Movie, a “narrative of very heavy duty proportions”. Our task began back in 1993, when I joined a group researching the authorship of De Doctrina. Because Milton’s authorship had been questioned, this multidisciplinary group tested it by diverse means – statistical, bibliographical, stylistic and so on. With the authorship upheld, my task shifted around 2000 to transcribing the manuscript, before editing and translating it, for the new Oxford University Press Complete Works of John Milton. In 2003 I was joined by Donald Cullington. Ten years later, we are free men again, and looking forward to holding the two thick volumes in our hands. Publication day was 13 September in the UK, though the authorial copies haven’t arrived yet.

We are the fourth such collaborative edition. The first edition was in 1825 by Charles, later Bishop, Sumner. Miraculously he completed the work in only two years. He had some help, whose nature and limits are not clearly defined, from William Walker; also from green tea and a wet bandage for the forehead  to enable him to “sit up night after night until three or four o’clock in the morning.” He saved some time, and introduced distortions of Milton’s Latin bible, by using the English King James version for the teeming citations which comprise half of the whole huge text. The next collaboration, that of James Holly Hanford and Waldo H. Dunn for the Columbia collected Milton (1930s), has left no record of how their work was done. It derived much from Sumner’s. Third came volume VI of the Yale Prose Works edition. Yale is unsurpassed in its annotations and scholarship, both historical and theological. But it offers no Latin text. Milton’s own words are not to be found. John Carey’s brilliant translation, which rightly included his own fresh rendering of the thousands of biblical citations, is widely used nowadays, as if its lucid and concise self-consistency might replace Milton’s diverse and uneven Latin, which ranges from high to low to confused register.

Our own edition seeks fidelity, the fidelity of transcribing the manuscript afresh, warts and all, and only emending when it becomes nonsense; and correspondingly of translating with literal accuracy, and completeness, as aims we place ahead of elegance. We did it like this in order that the English might show more of Milton’s real style, which is often otiose, excessively periodic, turgid or partisan; soaring and sinking by turns; in a word, idiosyncratic. Computer applications have helped, naturally, and retirement is another advantage we have enjoyed. Our routine has been the opposite of Sumner’s. Not late nights, but early mornings. As the work neared its eventual completion, 3 or 4 a.m. became for each of us the time of starting not finishing for the day. No green tea nor wet bandages in sight.

In the intervals of copy-editing, and of four stages of proof-reading (OUP are marvellously thorough!), we have been writing notes, essays, talks and blogs, on some of the trains of thought which the requirements of time and of the edition precluded. A joint essay is appearing in December in Milton Studies. These by-products are continuing, in the form of an address to the recent International Milton Symposium in Tokyo (August), to the forthcoming British Milton Symposium meeting (October), and in a talk in Washington DC on my way home (November). Publication in America is later than in the UK, so this talk should serve to keep the pot boiling, as do the various blogs written for OUP and for the Otago research theme.


John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington’s The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume VIII De Doctrina Christiana

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments


We are very pleased to announce that John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington’s The Complete Works of John Milton: Volume VIII De Doctrina Christiana has just appeared with Oxford University Press:

The second of eleven volumes of Milton’s Complete Works to be published contains his systematic theology, De Doctrina Christiana. It is his longest work and was, Milton said, his dearest possession. In it, he works out his religious beliefs from Scripture; what Scripture does not mention, such as the Trinity, he energetically refutes. The work exists in manuscript and was written in Latin for European as well as home consumption. Its chapters are conceived and arranged according to the binarizing logic devised by the Protestant martyr Ramus.

De Doctrina Christiana first appeared in print nearly two hundred years ago but the previous editions are now overdue for replacement. For this ground-breaking edition, the manuscript has been freshly transcribed, with fuller textual apparatus and commentary than in any of its few predecessors. The edition aims above all at accuracy, clarity, and completeness, presenting Latin and English on facing pages, amplifying the Biblical citations where necessary, and adding extensive annotations not only on the text and its transcription but also on the content and context of Milton’s ideas. The provenance and history of the work are expertly narrated, enabling readers to get closer than ever before to its composition. Milton’s Latin is examined in unprecedented detail, and the translation aims to reproduce the nuances and changes of register which characterize his Latin in all its individuality – from the high-flown rhetoric of his arguments in favour of divorce and polygamy, and against tithing, to the plainer style of those sections where he states his main points more dispassionately but bolsters them with strong and wide-ranging Biblical support. The structure of this massive edifice is clarified by the addition of charts which show the Ramist scheme he followed, whereby the primary division between faith (Book One) and worship (Book Two) is mirrored by smaller and smaller subdivisions whose relationship to the whole can be seen at a glance.


The ‘Reliability’ of the Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696)

Monday, August 6th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

Tim Cooper writes…

The autobiography of the leading English Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-91) was edited by his close friend and fellow Nonconformist minister Matthew Sylvester, and published in 1691 under the title Reliquiae Baxterianae.  No wonder Sylvester began his Preface to the Reader with an apology for the five-year delay in publication: the whole work is around eight-hundred pages long or, to be precise, 644,149 words.  Sylvester has been generally criticized for his editorial efforts but he did his best with what was a near-impossible task.  In the memorable words of William Lamont, the autobiography ‘is a sprawling monster containing everything but Baxter’s laundry list’.


A new edition of this sprawling monster is now in the offing.  I am one of a team of editors that is working to produce a critical edition of the Reliquiae to be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.  My colleagues in the project are Professor Neil Keeble, Professor John Coffey and Dr Thomas Charlton.  So I am rapidly developing an interest in seventeenth-century life-writing.  In November I will be presenting a paper to the North American Conference on British Studies.  In this post I would like to signal my broad intentions and ask for some help.


I am interested in the ‘reliability’ of the Reliquiae.  Being aware of just how much the word deserves its inverted commas,  I am very sensitive to just how tricky the concept of reliability will prove to be, given its proximity to the concept of truth: is the story that Baxter tells a true one?  Is it accurate?  Is it reliable?  Or is it distorted, partial and incomplete?  There are clear perils in trying to talk in these terms.  Of course Baxter’s account was partial and distorted – it could not have been anything else.  Yet in practical terms, historians (and scholars in other disciplines) will be required to use the Reliquiae for scholarly purposes.   I would like to be able to say something about how it should be approached and with what sort of confidence or reservations.


My intention is to compare the Reliquiae with an earlier and much briefer biographical account.  In April 1659 Baxter wrote the last chapter of A Holy Commonwealth, in which he answered the question ‘By what Reasons was I moved to engage myself in the Parliaments Warre?’ (p. 456).  It is a remarkably candid and fulsome explanation, quite different in tone from the way in which Baxter faced the same question (though he did not seek to answer it explicitly) in the Reliquiae, which he began to write five years later in 1664.  Obviously, neither account is without bias: there is a clear audience and purpose in in mind 1659, just as there is in 1664.  But I think something can be said about what is going on in the Reliquiae when it is placed alongside A Holy Commonwealth.  If nothing else, the events of 1659 (and 1660) altered the story that Baxter was able to tell himself, and they certainly altered the story he wanted to tell us.

I am only at the beginning of serious reading on the subject.  Already some generous colleagues have supplied a few welcome pointers.  But I would like to know of any scholarly discussion of the related issues of truth and reliability in early modern life-writing.  Can anyone send me to some helpful conversation partners to get me started?

Milton and the Radicals

Sunday, July 15th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

John Hale writes…

During his recent U3A lecture series on radical religion 1640-1660, Andrew Bradstock asked me about John Milton’s relationship, if any, with the radicals, and notably the Quakers. He said, “Was he, as Christopher Hill famously maintained, carrying on a dialogue with them, sharing their intellectual convictions but held back from commitment by ‘patrician social prejudices’?”

Our exchange came at a time when I had finished editing Milton’s Christian Doctrine for Oxford Complete Works of John Milton: does this position me to comment on what he believed, and how and why? Anyhow, I want to get out from the trees and think about the wood, and relate both to wider terrains, from a rare and relevant perspective.

Yes, Milton knew Quakers, as friends and benefactors in his blindness. And at points in De Doctrina he comes within an ace of naming them. But his ideas about interpreting scripture by the light of the spirit only sound like the Quakers’ inner light until we see that he get them from scripture itself (Book 1, Chapter 30), from which everything he believes in must come, by his announced programme (see Epistle).

Similarly he agrees with the Independents on the nature of the church: it is the gathering of local believers, just as the church of Corinth or Thessalonica was for Paul. This, or rather these, “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17: 6; this is about conversion, so Hill’s title is metaphor). So with infant baptism: with the Baptists, he is against it because scripture tells (mainly of the baptizing of believing adults. He finds the biblical evidence insufficient to establish that worship should emphasize Sunday: on this he exceeds the Quakers in informality. Paul explicitly refused to be paid: a paid clergy is therefore unbiblical anathema.

Why, then, would Milton join any one of these groups which stress some single feature of the early church, when he is driving towards reform which recovers all of the early churches’ observances? He is eager, rather, to strip away from worship — and conduct too — whatever does not get scriptural warrant. The civil power shall have no standing in church matters. Implicit faith has no standing. “Bishop” and “presbyter” are general terms or functions, nothing to do with orders and ordination. No paid clergy and no tithe. And so on.

To my mind, negatives are many, and clearer than positives. They include what offends him in England’s church and state relations, and what (without offence, just a negative negative) is simply not there in scripture. Milton does not advocate political action, beyond insisting that curbs on freedom of worship are abominable. Masters and property owners keep that standing: just as slaves remain slaves for Paul (and are not to get above themselves because of the faith), so servants, or usury, or inequalities of wealth stay put.

It’s true he owned property, which might be termed having “social prejudices” in favour of ownership, but most people did and do. His beliefs follow the pastoral Paul. This is bound to disappoint any modern radical for whom it is social–not religious–equality which makes a radical; but that is not how Milton sought to be “radical.” Milton has no programme for “having all thing in common” [Acts 2: 43-4 and 4: 32]. He doesn’t cite those verses in De Doctrina, an absence which may or may not be a significant negative.

Negatives of another kind throw more light on his belief-system. Going outside De Doctrina for a moment, I find in his other writings two great rejections, based on bitter experience. He had had a bellyful of the bishops, and of Laudian regulation in particular (coerced changes in worship, changes which gave double offence, aggravated further by an apparatus of snoops and informers to aid the coercion). And Presbytery in turn disappointed him, when it (nearly) got its hands on the levers. In the same way that elections now put into office any group which is not the one which has been abusing office (improbable coalitions preferred to jack-in- office-too-long), Milton wanted to avoid repetitions of the old order in church and state. How often we know best what we don’t want. Once bitten, twice shy.

Monarch and bishops and tithes and regulation all came back in 1660. The regime almost took his life, and compelled him into silence (and stopped publication of De Doctrina, twice over). But for our questions here, he did not budge in the negatives of experience, conviction, and — for De Doctrina — method of finding out truth.

It seems inexact, therefore, to think of Milton as “patrician.” He was not of the ruling class by origin. His father was a self-made man. Milton was not so much an “intellectual” as a zealot. His commitment was to a method. He may look “eclectic,” another term used by Hill. However, reliance “on scripture alone” will tend to take you in more than one direction, just as the mid-century paralleling of England with ancient Israel did.

Why would he be a joiner? His unnerving, doctrinaire adherence to consistency (not to mention his confident sense of vocation, and the isolation of blindness) overrode the priorities of other radicals. He seems less, not more, eclectic than they do.

I don’t fully accept Hill’s idea of Milton as an “intellectual” on these subjects. Certainly he had strong views, and availed himself of print and the cessation of censorship to write book about them. In De Doctrina, however, he reads more like a conscientious and well-organized believer, in whom strong views break out from time to time under pressure. There is something home-grown, and endearingly personal about this compilation.

If so, that could encourage a return to the older question, of the relation between De Doctrina and Paradise Lost. Do they conflict or say the same? Can one be used to gloss the other? My hunch, after long immersion, is that both works took a long time to evolve into the forms in which they are now read. That they overlapped, so that their relations shift from one topic to another. (The poem doesn’t deal in topics, but the treatise indeed does, and the MS exposes some shifts of position.) The relations between the two masterworks are asymmetrical. Closer attention is needed to growth within Milton’s thinking. Though it would be easy to get that wrong in detail, and to lapse from objectivity, some progress can be made, with the help of a new transcription of the MS and a linguistic attention to Milton’s own (Latin) words.

Bruno and the Extra-Terrestrials

Sunday, July 1st, 2012 | Greg Dawes | 2 Comments

Giordano Bruno (Livre du recteur, University of Geneva, 1578)

The SETI League, which is dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligent life, each year offers an award in honour of Giordano Bruno (15481600).

Bruno was, notoriously, burned to death in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, after eight years of imprisonment and condemnation by the Roman Inquisition. One of the judges who condemned him was the learned Jesuit, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, who would later play a prominent role in the Galileo affair (and who is now Saint Robert Bellarmine).

So why should a sixteenth-century heretic be associated with the search for extra-terrestrial life, a search that involves thousands of computers scanning the electromagnetic spectrum for that longed-for (or perhaps dreaded) signal, that suggests we are not alone in the universe?

An image from Copernicus's "De Revolutionibus"

Bruno, along with Galileo, was one of the first defenders of Copernican cosmology. Indeed he seems to have been the first to note that the anonymous preface to Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) was not written by Copernius himself. We now know that preface to be written by the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander. It offers an instrumentalist interpretation of Copernicus’s cosmology, arguing that his picture of the universe should not be understood as a description of the way it actually is, but as a mere instrument for calculating heavenly movements. Along with Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and Galileo (1564–1642), Bruno denied that this was Copernicus’s intention and held to a realist interpretation of his cosmological scheme.

A 1483 copy of Lucretius's work, produced for Pope Sixtus IV.

But in many respects Bruno went beyond Copernicus. He followed the Roman poet Lucretius (ca. 99–55 BC), as well as some late medieval thinkers, in affirming the existence of a universe that is infinite in extent. While Bruno coupled this with a defence of Copernican cosmology, he realized that such an idea rendered moot debates about the centre of the universe. As Lucretius had already written in his De rerum natura (I,1070), “there can be no centre to that which is boundless” (medium nil esse potest infinita). In his De la causa, principio et uno (Fifth Dialogue), Bruno expresses a similar idea with a paraphrase of the words of Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64). One can affirm with equal truth, he writes, that “the centre of the universe is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere” (il centro de l’universo è per tutto, e che la circonferenza non è in parte alcuna) or that “the circumference is everywhere, but the centre is nowhere” (la circonferenza è per tutto, ma il centro non si trova).

Of more interest to the SETI League is the fact that Bruno believed this infinite universe to be populated by an infinite number of worlds, in the sense of planetary systems orbiting other suns. He claimed that these worlds were inhabited by creatures like, or even superior to, ourselves.

Such ideas sound very modern. But should we regard Bruno as a pioneer of modern science? This idea was vigorously contested by Frances Yates, who in her 1964 book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradtion, argued that Bruno is better thought of as a Renaissance magus. More recently, Hilary Gatti, in her book Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science, has tried to reforge a link between Bruno and the new natural philosophy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But even Gatti is loathe to describe Bruno as a practitioner of the new science. He is merely “a friend and supporter of the new science,” who, while supportive of aspects of that new knowledge, is also “deeply suspicious of some of its outcomes and consequences.”

Galileo Galilei in 1636 (Portrait by Justus Sustermans)

What’s important to note is that Bruno does not reason in the same manner as, say, Galileo, who in a letter to Fortunio Liceti in 1639 admitted that he could not decide if the universe is infinite or bounded. Bruno has no such hesitations. As Gale Christianson writes (Science Fiction Studies March 1976), Bruno “soared into the metaphysical realm unencumbered by the ballast of scientific thinking.”

In particular, Bruno’s belief in an infinite universe populated by a plurality of worlds is not based on any empirical data. In fact, he believes there could be no empirical evidence for such a claim. As he writes near the beginning of De l’infinito universo, “no corporeal sense can perceive the infinite. None of our senses could be expected to furnish this conclusion; for the infinite cannot be the object of sense-perception” (non è senso che vegga l’infinito, non è senso da cui si richieda questa conchiusione; perché l’infinito non può essere oggetto del senso).

Rather than being based on empirical evidence, Bruno’s conviction is based on a theological principle. It is based on the idea that an infinite creator could not do anything other than create an infinite world. To suggest that God would create a finite universe is to accuse the Creator of being miserly or envious (invidioso), since he would be refusing to share his own goodness (De l’infinito universo First Dialogue). It follows, as Bruno writes, that “we insult the infinite cause when we say that it may be the cause of a finite effect” (infinita causa injuriose finiti dicetur effectus causa) (De immenso et innumerabilibus I, 9).

It is deeply ironical that Bruno, who was put to death by the Church, argued for a revolutionary scientific conclusion on theological grounds

So is Bruno a pioneer of modern science? In some of his conclusions, yes, perhaps he is. But in the manner in which he is reasoning he certainly is not. In fairness to the SETI League, they also recognize this fact. While naming an award after Bruno, they have also posted a critical essay by Richard Pogge, suggesting that Bruno’s thought has little to offer the modern searcher for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

There is, of couse, a lesson to be learned here. Before we describe a thinker as a precursor of some modern ideas, we need to examine, not merely the conclusions at which he arrived, but the ways in which he arrived at them. This may involve styles of reasoning that are far removed from those we would consider scientific.