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New Books in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

Posted On May 03, 2016 | 16:42 pm | by lainw | Permalink
Hermit’s Lives, the Latin Timaeus, and Old English Psalms in Spring 2016

This spring, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) adds to its growing series of facing-page translations of important medieval literature with one new work in each of its current languages. Holy Men of Mount Athos assembles a number of accounts of the lives of hermits associated with the Byzantine Empire’s most important monastic center. Calcidius’ Latin translation of and commentary on Plato’s Timaeus was the only Plato available in Western Europe for a millennium. The Old English psalms of the Paris Psalter were a centerpiece of Anglo-Saxon religious life. All three volumes provide English translations of these texts for the first time.

Holy Men of Mount Athos

Often simply called the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos was the most famous center of Byzantine monasticism and remains the spiritual heart of the Orthodox Church today. This volume presents the Lives of Euthymios the Younger, Athanasios of Athos, Maximos the Hutburner, Niphon of Athos, and Philotheos. These five holy men lived on Mount Athos at different times from its early years as a monastic locale in the ninth century to the last decades of the Byzantine period in the early fifteenth century. All five were celebrated for asceticism, clairvoyance, and, in most cases, the ability to perform miracles; Euthymios and Athanasios were also famed as founders of monasteries.

The Greek text has also been substantially improved for one of the accounts, which was last edited in 1903. Alice-Mary Talbot, editor for the Byzantine Greek series, coedited and cotranslated the individual accounts that comprise Holy Men of Mount Athos along with Richard Greenfield. She emphasizes that producing the volume was a team effort: editorial board members Alexander Alexakis and Claudia Rapp, in particular, helped substantially with their endeavor. Talbot says that the project, which began at a weekly reading group during her time as Director of Byzantine Studies, is the fruition of fifteen years’ work.

Besides the textual improvements, Talbot adds that these life stories are important for any student of Byzantine culture and religion to consider. “For one thing, they show the many varieties of Byzantine monasticism, the different ways that one could be a monk: alone, in a group—the difference between communal and hermit life,” as well as the tensions between the two, she notes. On top of that, Holy Men of Mount Athos includes stories of hermits’ daily lives and their practical struggles: one account describes men who “constructed huts of wild grasses and lived in these summer and winter, scorched by the sun and frozen by the cold.” Talbot says that the life of Athanasios, in particular, offers “the best description anywhere” of the founding of a Byzantine monastery. Holy Men of Mount Athos offers an exceptionally clear look at these central institutions in Byzantine life from the ground up.

Calcidius’ On Plato’s Timaeus

Until the Renaissance, the work of Calcidius offered the medieval West almost the only direct access to Plato’s corpus not dispersed in fragments. Sometime between the mid-third and late fourth centuries, Calcidius translated into Latin an important section of Plato’s Timaeus, complemented by extensive commentary and organized into coordinated parts. Volume editor John Magee observes in his introduction that “Calcidius’ influence spanned much of Western Europe over the course of a millennium.” This medieval volume altered perspectives on Plato by drawing on other philosophical traditions, particularly the Stoic and Peripatetic, while including Judeo-Christian cosmology and anthropology.

The publication of Calcidius’ On Plato’s Timaeus complements other important literature in the history of medieval Western European Platonism already published in DOML, particularly the Poetic Works of Bernardus Silvestris and the Literary Works of Alan of Lille.

Old English Psalms

The Latin psalms figured prominently in the lives of the Anglo-Saxons, whether sung in the Divine Office by clerics, studied as a textbook for language learning by students, or recited in private devotion by lay people. They were also translated into Old English, first in prose and later in verse. Sometime in the middle of the eleventh century, the prose and verse translations were brought together and organized in a complementary sequence in a manuscript now known as the Paris Psalter. The prose version, traditionally attributed to King Alfred (d. 899), combines literal translation with interpretative clarification. In contrast, the anonymous Old English verse translation composed during the tenth century approaches the psalms in a spirit of prayer and devotion. Despite their differences, both reflect earnest attempts to capture the literal meaning of the psalms.

The complete text of all 150 prose and verse psalms is available here in contemporary English for the first time. With this translation, readers encounter the beginnings and the continuation of a long tradition of psalm renderings in English.

About the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library presents original Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old English texts with facing-page translations designed to make written achievements of medieval and Byzantine cultures available to English-speaking scholars and general readers. Aimed at a global audience, it offers familiar classics of the medieval canon as well as lesser-known texts of literary and cultural value in accessible modern translations based on the latest research by leading figures in the field.