Of Monks and Miracles: Constantine the African and Two of his Twelfth-Century Readers

In the past few months, we’ve discussed some of the paths Constantine the African’s works took throughout the Latin West. In these posts, one recurring theme has been that monastic houses played a vitally important role in disseminating Constantine’s works, reshaping medieval Latin medicine in the process. But the eager reception of these works was not confined to the spread of medical theory, changes in the confection of drugs, or the practice of medicine. Though we do not yet know the full impact of Constantine’s works, they appear to have played a substantial role in reshaping conceptions of the body and illness. Constantine exerted considerable influence on medieval society and culture, touching everything from the teaching of medicine in universities to literary conceptions of lovesickness, and so the breadth of Constantine’s impact on the Latin West can scarcely be captured in a single blog post. But if we confine our view to twelfth-century monasteries, two examples—one in France, one in England—will illustrate just how deep these influences went.

In the first half of the twelfth century, the illustrious Benedictine and then Cistercian monk William of St.-Thierry made substantial use of medical texts when he synthesized a work on the nature of the body and the soul. In the first half of this text, which concerned the nature of the body, William drew extensively from Constantine’s works, even naming Constantine’s work on pharmacological degrees, the Liber graduum. (Constantine’s name is not attached to the work here, however, nor William does not cite Constantine by name elsewhere in the text.) Nor was William’s treatise a mere scissors-and-paste job. In quoting from a work on the nature of human beings by Alfanus of Salerno—a southern Italian archbishop who was, in fact, one of Constantine’s patrons—William appears to have carefully “updated” some of the terminology with reference to Constantine’s works. For example, (though somewhat confusingly to us), Alfanus had referred to the esophagus as the stomachus and the stomach as the venter, but William modified Alfanus’ text to bring it into closer line with Constantine’s (and modern) usage.

Given William’s time and place, the fact that he drew from Constantine’s works is not completely surprising—other thinkers in the schools of northern France (where William had studied) also made use of Constantine’s works. The Theorica Pantegni’s discussions of natural philosophical subjects (like the nature of the elements) appear to have been one avenue by which ancient thought reached the vibrant schools of northern France. But it is striking that William of St.-Thierry numbered among these avid readers. After all, William of St.-Thierry is probably best known today as a caustic critic of venomous novelties in theology and philosophy; with Bernard of Clairvaux, he played an influential role in the condemnation of Peter Abelard at the Council of Sens in 1141. That he proved to be such an eager reader of Constantine’s works may be an illustration of the broad readership of Constantine’s works among both innovative natural philosophers and censorious theologians. On the other hand, given how quickly Constantine’s works spread to monastic houses, it may have been the case that it was monastic readers who turned natural philosophers onto Constantine’s texts rather than the other way around.

William of St.-Thierry himself wrote one of the most important early sources for Bernard’s life. A few early manuscripts of this text, like this thirteenth century copy from the Schottenstift in Vienna, depict Bernard himself. Because of William’s connection to Bernard, he has sometimes been overshadowed by his influential colleague and friend. His work on the body and soul, however, is one text where we can discern the breadth and originality of his thought.

That monastic readers like William of St.-Thierry continued to read Constantine’s works throughout the twelfth century can hardly be doubted, and Constantinian influence crops up in surprising places. By the second half of the twelfth century, in fact, a collection of miracles for Thomas Becket by William of Canterbury reckoned to be “one of the most spectacular productions in the history of English miracle collecting”1 gives extensive evidence for the way that Constantine’s texts informed the understanding of illness and miraculous cures.

Though a murky figure in many respects, the Christ Church monk William of Canterbury tells us that he himself was at Canterbury Cathedral when the troublemaker Thomas Becket was killed at the king’s instigation in 1170. The massive collection of miracles that he compiled in the 1170s, comprising over four hundred stories, attests to the rapid popularity and dramatic posthumous power of the martyr.

But it is not merely for its size that William’s miracle collection is remarkable—its many miracles make ostentatious use of contemporary medicine, and Constantine the African’s influence is particularly apparent. Where descriptions of miraculous healings in other texts contented themselves with the names—or even vague locations—of pains and illnesses, William appears to have striven for precision and exhaustive detail. William drew directly from Constantine’s works, using both his terminology and direct—and lengthy!—quotations. For example, in describing a priest who experienced vertigo when travelling (dizziness or perhaps, here, seasickness) William felt compelled to explain the nature of the ailment in some detail, with an explanation taken directly from the first book of the Viaticum, Constantine’s handbook of practical medicine.2

But even a brief examination of William’s miracle collection illustrates that his engagement with contemporary medicine was more complex and multifaceted than these verbatim quotations of Constantine might suggest. For one, his knowledge of medicine appears to have gone beyond Constantine’s works: in categorizing the types of epilepsy, William drew on medical terminology that does not appear in Constantine’s texts.3 And elsewhere, William’s relationship with Constantine give us access to the monk’s perspective on health, healing, and the body.

In recounting the cures of two sufferers of leprosy, for example, William interweaves quotations from the Viaticum, drawing a forceful contrast between earthly medicine and more efficacious, divine remedies. “ ‘I have never,’ said Galen, ‘seen someone thoroughly healed from leprosy unless they drank wine into which a serpent had fallen and decayed.’… But we have seen two,” William states emphatically, “cleansed from head to toe and without a single sign of leprosy (nec signum lepre reservantes) who did not take any medication but water and the blood of the martyr…” William’s Galen quotation here is taken from Viaticum Book VII, as is the typology of leprosy he gives later in the chapter: “He [Thomas Becket] cures every leprosy, not only tyria, leonina, but also elephantia and alopecia—and whatever other sort of leprosy a physician (physicus) can devise. He also cures spiritual leprosy (which is even worse), that is, the variety of vices that pollute the integrity of the soul…”4 William’s use of the Viaticum here shows us that not only were Constantine’s texts being read and digested, their assumptions about health and illness must have prompted discussion and debate.5

As William of Canterbury’s account of this miracle attests, Thomas Becket was regarded as a particularly efficacious healer. (Even the saint himself notes, “Wow! Aren’t I a good doctor?”—“Heus… nonne bonus medicus sum?”) One characteristic memento pilgrims to his shrine received were ampullae like this twelfth-century example, containing what William mentions here, water and the blood of the martyr, which other miracles confirm the healing powers of. British Museum, 1921,0216.62.6

William’s use of and engagement with medicine, particularly as a lens for understanding miracles, presages the medical precision and scrutiny that would often play a role in formal canonization proceedings in later centuries.7 Our knowledge of medicine in twelfth-century hagiography and miracle collections remains limited, however, and it is hard to say whether William’s embrace of Constantinian medicine would have made him unusual among his contemporaries in England or Europe. Winston Black has recently shown that English monasteries were keenly engaged with Constantine’s works, while Sally Crumplin and Margaret Coombe have noted strong medical influences on vitae written by the monk Reginald of Durham. And as we saw with William of St.-Thierry, Constantine’s works were eagerly read in twelfth-century monasteries across Europe, and by influential figures. Exceptional as these two Williams appear now in their embrace of Constantine’s works, then, they may merely be the tip of a twelfth-century iceberg.

A special thanks to Rachel Koopmans, whose work and notes on medical influences on William of Canterbury were of foundational importance for this post.

Further Reading:

  • Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).
  • Sally Crumplin, “Modernizing St. Cuthbert: Reginald of Durham’s Miracle Collection,” in Signs, Wonders, Miracles : Representations of Divine Power in the Life of the Church: Papers Read at the 2003 Summer Meeting and the 2004 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (Rochester: Boydell Press, 2005), 179–91.
  • Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
  • Ana Isabel Martín Ferreira, ed., Tratado médico de Constantino el Africano: Constantini Liber de elephancia ([Valladolid]: Universidad de Valladolid, 1996).

1. Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate, p. 139.

2. Miracula S. Thomæ auctore Willelmo Cantuariensi II.87, ed. Robertson, in Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, vol. 1, pp. 248-249.

3. The terms he did use (including catalempsia and analempsia as well as epilempsia), did occur in Gariopontus’ handbook of medicine, the Passionarius, which we’ve had occasion to mention before.

4. Miracula S. Thomæ auctore Willelmo Cantuariensi IV.20, ed. Robertson, in Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, vol. 1, pp. 332-333. See also the discussion in Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate, pp. 186-7.  Given the divergences between William’s quotations here and Constantine’s text, we may be able to determine which manuscript of the Viaticum William made use of.

5. For further discussion of William’s engagement with medical subjects, see Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate, pp. 181-200.

6. For the martyr’s self-assessment, see Robertson, Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, p. 164, cited in Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, p. 349. For further discussion of mementos from Becket’s shrine, see Bartlett, 441-442.

7. Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?, pp. 350-1.

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