Printed book on paper with manuscript marginalia

A “Commentary” on Lambertus on Aquinas on Aristotle

By Walton O. Schalick ~

Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.

Printed book on paper with manuscript marginalia
Copulata, “De anima,” fol. 2a, 1485
A student wrote a silly bilingual syllogism deriding his teacher’s name, Frater Silvester Coci (“Silvester the Cook’s Soon”).
National Library of Medicine #9414205

Jorge of Burgos, the scholar-villain of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, damned Aristotle (384–322 BCE): “Every book by that man has destroyed a part of the learning that Christianity has accumulated over the centuries.” With such a driving hatred Jorge embarked on a series of murders to suppress the philosopher’s book on humor.

In the high and late Middle Ages the uncertainty generated by Aristotle’s thought (unlike Plato’s, which was more amenable to monotheism) began to undermine his status. By the end of the fifteenth century some scholars posed a concrete question: Should Aristotle, the great authority of antiquity and medieval scholasticism, be eternally damned or saved? That question struck Lambertus de Monte (1430/5–99) as specious. Lambertus was professor of arts and of theology, and then dean of theology, at the University of Cologne from 1455 to 1499. A devout Catholic, he fervently admired the works of St. Thomas Aquinas (1224/5–74), the great Parisian philosopher-theologian who “resurrected” Aristotle in the thirteenth century. So zealously did Aquinas favor Aristotle that Lambertus advocated his beatification.

Lambertus was born in modern-day Holland and studied under his uncle Gerhardus de Monte at the University of Cologne, receiving his master of arts degree in 1454 and doctorate of theology in 1473. He was a member of the Schola Coloniensis, whose medieval scholastic arguments were among the first to appear in printed books in the fifteenth century, but also among the first to be overturned by the newfangled humanists of the mid-sixteenth.

Printed book on paper with manuscript marginalia
Copulata, “Phisicorum,” fols. 57b and 58a, 1485
The doodles show some of the book’s many reader-titillating tongues.
National Library of Medicine #9414205

Copulata super tres libros Aristotelis De anima iuxta doctrinam Thomae de Aquino, the National Library of Medicine (NLM)’s book featured here, contains several of Lambertus’s commentaries on Aquinas’s interpretations of Aristotle’s work, including one on the soul, De anima. A Dominican monastery in Frankfurt owned the volume in the sixteenth century. Pierre Duhem, the great French historian of medieval science, owned a similar copy. Unlike Duhem’s copy, the NLM’s is strewn with doodles and images, mostly in one of two brown-inked hands, of indeterminate age.

Printed book on paper with manuscript marginalia
Copulata, “De anima,” fol. 105b, 1485
Aristotelian ideas about the senses provided humorous inspiration for students. A waggish student drawing ridicules the size of the monastic nose.
National Library of Medicine #9414205

The ad hoc illustrations defacing the volume are compelling. Folio 105b (right) displays the bust of a tonsured monk. Surrounded by a profusion of banners describing actions of the soul in the body, the monk’s visage also has pointers to the organs of the five senses. The visual trope, dating at least to the ninth century, proliferated in the thirteenth and beyond.

Illuminations of tongues, suggesting both the sense of taste and the organ of speech by which books were read aloud, humorously lick many of the tome’s pages and echo The Name of the Rose. To kill his victims Father Jorge coated the folios of his Aristotelian manuscript with a poison that a reader would ingest by licking his finger on turning a page. The fictional tongue in cheek ensured that indulgence in Aristotelian ribaldry brought death. For us, as readers of this treasure, the provocative tongues bring humor and delight.

Walton O. Schalick, III, is a practicing pediatric rehabilitation physician as well as a historian of medieval medicine and of modern disability. He is Assistant Professor of Medical History and Bioethics, Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, Pediatrics, History, and History of Science at the University of Wisconsin, where he is also Director of the Disability Studies Cluster. He has published on all of these subjects and has received federal and private funding for his research.


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