Q&A with David Foley

We are delighted to have David Foley on our blog to discuss his book Peter Comestor’s Lectures on the Glossed Gospel of John: A Study with a Critical Edition and Translation. Peter Comestor (1100-1178) was a twelfth-century French theological writer and university teacher. David Foley has a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in Medieval Studies and is a translator for Angelus Press, Saskatoon, Canada.

Q: Can you speak a little bit about the influence of Peter Comestor? 

A: Since the renaissance of medieval scholarship in the early twentieth century, scholars of medieval theology have repeatedly emphasized the “extraordinary celebrity” of Peter Comestor († 1178) throughout the High Middle Ages, and the considerable influence that his thinking exerted over the study of the Bible in the age of scholasticism until the advent of the printing press; even so, none of his major works have ever been dignified with a critical edition, much less a modern translation. In fact, it is precisely the startling number of early vernacular translations produced of his landmark textbook of biblical history, the Historia scholastica (preserved in a prodigious eight-hundred Latin manuscripts besides), that may best illustrate Comestor’s popularity among medieval readers. For many centuries, the Historia was a standard fixture of university curriculum, an authoritative reference work for theologians, a repository for preachers, a storybook for half-literate laymen, and even a treasury of sacred images for artisans. Comestor’s biblical teaching, however, was not confined to this medieval best-seller; among practitioners of the sacred science, Master Peter was no less highly reputed for his classroom teaching on the Scriptures, which has been preserved in scores of manuscripts in the form of clean-written transcripts of his oral lectures on the four Gospels. 

Q: How important it was for Comestor’s lectures to receive an edition and English translation? 

A: From the time of their initial dissemination in the mid-1150s, scholastic theologians, preachers, and writers of every kind regularly made recourse to Comestor’s lectures (or ‘glosses’) in their own classrooms and treatises, and it is only with a careful comparative study of primary sources that scholars may unravel the intricate transmission of ideas that characterize the Twelfth-century Renaissance. Before now, with the exception of various excerpts, none of Comestor’s lectures have even been printed in their original Latin. The advent of this initial (and admittedly partial) critical edition and study of one of Master Peter’s lecture courses –– that on the Gospel of John –– will finally furnish medievalists with some of the necessary material to determine Comestor’s precise place in the history of theology, and to arrive at a more definite idea of how biblical teaching unfolded in the twelfth-century Parisian schools immediately before the birth of the university. The accompanying translation of the text will admit students and non-specialists into the delightful and idiosyncratic setting of Comestor’s lecture-room, with its unmistakable savour of orality, and into the rich pasture of medieval exegesis as it was pursued by one of the great Masters of the Sacred Page.

Q: What was the most challenging part of this project?

A: The seemingly interminable adaptation of the original files of my critical edition (with its numerous apparatus) to a different set of editorial conventions and typesetting. That said, the editorial team at CUA served as a superbly practiced midwife in the delivery of my edition; whatever deformities the text suffers from have been inherited from the father.

Q: What was the biggest surprise that you came across in your research and translation?

A: In the initial stages of research for this project, it was splendid to discover that Comestor’s lecture notes had never completely stabilized, or been reduced to a static literary commentary. Most tantalizing, in this respect, were the layers of scholastic additions (or ‘accretions’) to the original text that pervade the manuscript tradition. These accretions occur fitfully among different families of manuscripts, and they may appear in the margins, in the main body of text, or in neatly-drawn boxes inserted into the columns. Some of these “flying glosses” (as they are sometimes headed in the manuscripts: glosa volatilis) are definitely traceable to Comestor himself –– he may have dictated them to students after the original lecture notes were produced, or they may have been copied from the lectures he delivered in subsequent years –– while others were evidently written by his students or subsequent masters. In spite of their sometimes ambiguous authorship, the accretions attest to the dynamic and orally-rooted nature of these glosses, which were never far removed from the medieval classroom.  

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