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Boethius: De Consolatione Philosophiae
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Boethius: De Consolatione Philosophiae
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Contents

1. Introduction
2. Bibliography
3. Credits


Introduction:

Boethius lecturing to his students, from The Consolation of PhilosophyMS Hunter 374 (V.1.11), Glasgow University library

 

Introduction

This synoptic edition of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae aims to provide to new readers with a text that is both accessible and enlightening: accessible in the sense that while the original Latin is provided, so is a modern English translation which may be read parallel to to the original. This will allow the casual learner of Latin to more easily appreciate the beauty of Boethius' poetry, or simply enjoy the wide range of translations provided.

Not only are Latin and modern English found; additionally, there are translations in a range of European vernaculars from different times and traditions. Among these are King Alfred's translation into Old English, Jean de Meun's translation into Old French; Notker's translation into Old High German; along with the English of culturally significant names like Geoffrey Chaucer or Queen Elizabeth; the earliest translation is from the end of the ninth century while the most recent is from the twentieth. There are further translations into Greek, Italian, Spanish and more; the translations included in this edition of the text are those thought to have had the greatest cultural and linguistic impact – another limiting factor is, of course, that of time and capacity both of the editor and the reader: while reading a text parallel in several languages can be an enlightening experience both for the linguist, the historian, and the literate, the effect may also contribute greatly to confusion were too many languages to be read concurrently. This issue is amended through the option of selecting which texts to read at the same time, which is found at the top of the page within the text itself. 

The translations provided are given next to the Latin, sentence by sentence where this is possible; an exception was made for the Alfred text which has its own section due to its extensive structural creativity. King Alfred's translation is, however, readable parallel to Sedgefield's 1899 translation of his text. If you wish to read King Alfred's Old English translation, click here.

This text is enlightening in the sense that it was of significant cultural impact and importance throughout western learned tradition, particularly as a conveyor of the ancient Greek philosophy of, above all, Plato. Further, as this introductory text will aim to illustrate, the Consolatio also in many ways contributed to the movements that eventually lead to the renaissance school of thinking. 

Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae as a conveyor of classical philosophy and its importance in mediaeval Europe.

De Consolatione Philosophiae, the Consolation of Philosophy, was one of the most widely read and translated philosophical works in Europe though the middle ages, and displays aspects of Christian faith not commonly found in mediaeval literature. It was originally composed around year 524 by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, hereafter Boethius, while he was imprisoned by the newly crowned Gothic king of Rome, Theodoric, for having expressed a longing for the emperors of Old (some introduction to the historical background of the Consolatio may be found excellently presented in the foreword to King Alfred the Great's translaion, starting here). Its importance as a vehicle for Greek philosophy to enter European Christian tradition cannot be overstated: the influence of Plato on de Consolatione goes beyond the fact that it is structured like a Platonic dialogue; the immortality of the soul and the interplay between God and Fate are treated in poetic language, making it a worthwhile read to anyone wishing to further their understanding of our dark ages(sic!). As far as the philosophy of the text itself is concerned, there are, of course, many references and tangents to the thinking of Plato, as well as “a few references to Aristotle, Homer, and to the Andromache of Euripides.” 1

 

The selection of vernacular editions of the Consolation.

The editions we have here chosen to represent the European vernacular translations of the Consolation represent a wide and varied range of geographical and linguistic distribution, as well as some marked differences in artistic liberties taken during translation and transmission of the Boethian tradition. Here, the different translations shall be provided with an individual introduction to their origins and particularities, serving to help the reader place the texts in an historical, theological and philological context. The translators are presented chronologically, based on a generally accepted approximate year of translation or publication.

However, as suggested in the introduction, these are far from an exhaustive list of the extant translations of Boethius' Consolatio; should the reader wish to further examine Boethian tradition in the European vernaculars, there remains a cornucopia of options. Despite the narrow selection of texts supplied here, then, it is my belief that these are among the most important from all the relevant perspectives. 

King Alfred the Great's translation into Old English, late ninth century.

This translation, which is the earliest in this corpus, is also in many ways the most creative. It is frequently widely divergent from the Latin original, removing large sections of the text and adding others.

What may initially be most striking to the reader is the form of the verse lines, which follow the standard of the Germanic alliterative verse which has been standardised by most modern editors. The main poetic devices of this type of verse are, as suggested by the name, alliteration, as well as syllable stress in patterns varying between the different extant texts. The lines are divided into half-lines; one stressed syllable of the second half-line alliterates with at least one syllable, and regularly two, in the first. Here exemplified by the first sentence of King Alfred's Metre 2, roughly equivalent to the first lines of Boethius' Latin Metre 1 (Metre 2 is equivalent to Metre 1 due to Alfred's extensive introduction to the text):

Hwæt, ic lioða fela lustlice geo 

sanc on sælum; nu sceal siofigende,
wope gewæged, wreccea giomor,
singan sarcwidas.

The first lines of Boethius' Latin original will also be provided throughout this introduction in order to provide some contrast to the various translations; it is omitted here because Alfred's text does not follow it faithfully. However, it may also be found here

In addition to the structural disparities, many of the underlying philosophical and theological points and themes are presented differently. Adding to this, it is significant that while Boethius' personified Philosophia is represented as a woman, wearing the most magnificent of robes and commanding the lesser muses, Alfred chooses instead the grammatically masculine Wisdom, omitting entirely the description of this figure and the muses. The choice of a masculine Wisdom rather than a feminine Philosophia is also an interesting one. While Alfred frequently refers to Wisdom as essentially feminine and having feminine qualities, the choice of a grammatically masculine word, forcing the use of masculine pronouns, cannot be attributed only to lack of feminine equivalents or options in the language: the feminine Gesceadwisnes, «discretion, discernment» is used even within Alfreds text seemingly as a synonym to Wisdom. This leaves two options for the interpretation of this editorial choice: either, king Alfred wished to portray the quality of wisdom as an essentially masculine one, accepting the sometimes awkward juxtapositions of gender within the text; or he simply did not attribute much weight to the concept of grammatical gender being equivalent to natural gender – not surprisingly, considering Old English words such as the neuter wif meaning «woman». I find this the more likely option of the two; there can be no doubt that Alfred's Wisdom displays feminine qualities and attributes.

Another striking difference – for the modern editor, might I add, painfully striking – is the loose connection Alfred makes to the original text. As one will soon discover reading this text synoptically, Alfred not only alters the original distribution of propositions within a verse or a chapter, but simply omits entire sections, chapters, or verses; sometimes adding their content elsewhere but frequently not.

For these reasons, the text of Alfred's Consolatio is presented sections separate from the other translations, which are largely parallel to each other; further, Alfred's text is always accompanied by Sedgefield's 1899 modern English translation of the Old English text in order to aid the reader, similar to H.R. James' 1897 English translation running parallel to the other editions. Where there are clear connections between King Alfred's translation and the original Latin text, Bibliotheca Polyglotta will provide links to the relevant sections (and vice versa: for the reader of the Latin original, links to relevant sections of King Alfred's translation will be provided throughout). The fact that Alfred wished to translate the Consolatio may be, in part, thanks to events taking place in his own lifetime: similar to Rome, his native England was being invaded by bloodthirsty barbarians from the north; the learned Alfred may very well have wished to equivalate himself to the learned and powerful Boethius whose life was so suddenly subject to the will of a conquering people. 

Notker Teutonicus'1 translation into Old High German, late tenth or early eleventh century.

Contrary to king Alfred's translation, Notker's adheres very closely to the Latin text, following verse by verse and chapter by chapter, even supplying in his text a version of the Latin altered to more closely resemble the syntax of the vernacular Old High German. As an example, the two very first lines of the text side by side with the original Latin:

Boethius: Carmina qui quondam studio florente peregi,
Flebilis heu maestos cogor inire modos.

Notker: qui peregi quondam carmina florente studio . hev flebilis cogor inire mestos modos.
Íh-tir êr téta frôlichív sáng . íh máchôn nû nôte chára-sáng.

While the Old High German is very much semantically equivalent to the Latin, the poetic language is generally not mirrored. Combined with the «simplified» or rearranged Latin text provided by Notker, one almost gets the notion that this text is arranged in order to teach the reader Latin rather than as an independent work of literary and philosophical value.

As such, the content of the work and its philosophical and theological themes may be considered largely equivalent to what is discussed in section 2. of this introduction, keeping in mind, of course, the changes in political and theological climate which had taken place during the nearly five centuries between Boethius and Notker: as a Benedictine monk, the appeal of the text is obvious considering its acceptance of, or even preference for, what is neither unconditionally individualist nor unconditionally collectivist thinking; additionally, of course, it is striking that during the early high middle ages, in a Europe essentially under control of the church, Boethius' work was not only accepted by the clergy but cherished despite its praise of Greek philosophy: while the Great Schism lead to an increasingly dividing split between eastern and western Christendom, now the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, the east to a much greater extent could be said to encompass the philosophy of old while the west berated it – Boethius, it seems, is the primary exception to this trend, making the text ever more interesting.

Jean de Meun's translation into late Old French 1, around 1300

Jean de Meun's translation is, like Notker's, true to the Latin as far as the language allows such similarity. Considering the relative proximity of Old French to the original Latin, de Meun's text is testament to the developments which had taken place by the time it was written as well as to some not yet come to pass. Again, the same example is provided:

Latin: Carmina qui quondam studio florente peregi,

Flebilis heu maestos cogor inire modos.

Old French: Halas ! Je, qui jadis parfis jolies chançonnetez en mon estude flurissant,

sui maintenant contraint a commencier en plourant a faire vers de dolereuse matiere.

Here Jean de Meun preserves not only the semantic meaning of the Latin original, but recreates its poetic force. However, it is obvious that what in Latin constituted a very compact sentence is represented in Old French in a more periphrastic fashion more familiar to the modern reader. The language of de Meun will no doubt be familiar, too, to the speaker of modern French; the written language has seen little reform since the time of de Meun, though it would be much closer to the spoken language: even when the official dictionary of French, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, was first published in 1694, it followed a conservative and etymologically founded norm “that distinguishes men of letters from ignoramuses and simple women “ 1

Finally, it must be noted that while Jean de Meun's translation is not the earliest written in French (One Occitan poem of the 11th century, consisting of 257 decasyllabic verses, is loosely based on de Consolatio (much like King Alfred's work); Simon de Freine's partial translation is dated approximately 1180), it is an obvious choice here for its completeness and its faithfulness to the Latin, as well as Chaucer's faithfulness to de Meun's text. Another difference is that of the variety of French: Jean de Meun's text is written in continental French, while Simon de Freine's text is Anglo-Norman; in Bibliotheca polyglotta, Simon de Freine's text is available where possible next to Jean de Meun's for the reader to compare the two often quite different editions.

Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English translation, late fourteenth century.

Geoffrey Chaucer to a very wide extent is now considered the very definition of Middle English literature, both in terms of themes and language. In addition to Chaucer's contributions to the definition of the Middle English language and consequently the modern English language, the Boethian themes are recurring in his later works (prominently in The Knight's Tale, contributing to Chaucer's importance as a literary medium as well as a linguistic one, and raising Boethius' impact on English literary tradition to a position of utmost importance.

Like Jean de Meun, Chaucer adheres closely to the Latin – which is no coincidence: it is a generally accepted fact that Chaucer's translation of Boece was based on de Meun's; his text structure, syntax and even lexical choices follow closely those found in de Meun's work. As such, de Meun remains a heavy influence on the English language through Chaucer. In addition to basing his work on de Meun's, however, it is believed that Chaucer used a Latin text to correct de Meun's mistakes – as well as add some of his own: the Latin edition which Chaucer based his alterations of de Meun's text on is thought to have been a somewhat corrupted version of the original. Here are the introductory verses of Boethius, de Meun, and Chaucer side by side: 

 

Carmina qui quondam studio florente peregi,
Flebilis heu maestos cogor inire modos.

Halas ! Je, qui jadis parfis jolies chançonnetez en mon estude flurissant, sui maintenant contraint a commencier en plourant a faire vers de dolereuse matiere.

Allas! I, weping, am constreined to biginnen vers of sorowful matere, 

that whylom in florisching studie made delitable ditees.

One aspect of Chaucer's text which is striking initially is the paranthesised specification of the reference of pronouns in the text: commonly, Chaucer will use a pronoun followed by a paranthesis containing “(that is to seyn, X)”, where X is the pronoun's referent. In addition to these inserts which explain or expand on semantic gaps which could not be covered fluently in Chaucer's English, Chaucer's inserts also frequently explain difficult sections, or even his own opinion on the text – one rethorical question is followed by (quasi diceret, non) – “that is to say, no”.

Chaucer's translation of the Consolatio, considering its mirroring of the Old French, does not contribute to the literary spectrum of the text for the purposes of this synoptic reading beyond enligtening in a different language the various turns of the text; thus, for a discussion of Chaucer's presentation and discussion of the central themes of the text, see the appropriate section under the introduction to Jean de Meun's translation. However, the text prompted Chaucer to invent or import philosophical vocabulary into the English language. Also interesting, The Kingis Quair, attributed to King James 1 of Scotland, written in a verse form invented by Chaucer – the rime royal – revloves around a narrator whose reading on Boethius reflects on his own life.

Another interesting aspect of Chaucer's translation, of course, is that of intended audience: while earlier translations, such as King Alfred's or that of Notker, were clearly intended for a very elite audience consisting either of clergy or nobility or both, Chaucer's work is intended to be accessible even to those readers who, in an age of increasing popular literacy, would not necessarily understand or recognise the literal references in the work – Chaucer takes his time to explain to the lay reader how Boethius refers to, for example, Roman history or to Aristotle.

Queen Elizabeth's early modern English translation, 1593.

The second of the two translations of the text made by English monarchs, Queen Elizabeth's Englishings differ markedly from Alfred's. It is, unlike Chaucer's, in all likelihood translated directly from the Latin, and frequently displays features not found in the other extant translations. Here are the first two lines of her translation: 

Righmes that my groing studie ons perfourmed,

   In tears, alas! cumpeld, woful staues begin.

The authorship, too, is in this case beyond questioning; the surviving manuscript is partly in Elizabeth's own handwriting (scan to be added of this in Book 2, metre V): the metres are in her hand while the prose was in all likelyhood dictated to a clerk. Linguistically, too, this translation has some interesting aspects: the fuzzy distinction between orthographical v- and -u- is characteristic of pre-1630 English, tending towards v- in word-initial positions and -u- medially. No natively English words have initial [v] save for dialectal forms; medially, they would in any case not get confused.

Further, the choice of Greek Φ/φ over the native digraph «ph» (in «Φilosoφie») may hint at two things independent of one another: firstly, it may be homage to the Greek origins of classical philosophy, secondly, it may indicate a phonetic difference which the Queen found essential in Greek words between the ancient-Greek bilabial [pʰ] and English labiodental [f]; however, the etymologically Latin words «sulfur», rendered Sulφur, and “Lucifer” as Luciφar, hint at an explanation linked more closely to style than to language (though pythagorian has no theta in the translation). This interpretation may be favourably adopted considering the importance of De Consolatione as a conveyor of the classical Greek philosophy throughout the so-called dark ages of Europe (an idea which may, perhaps, need to be reconsidered in light of, among other things, the plethora of translations of Boethius right through this period: there clearly was no absence of thinking, or even philosophy).

The queen composed her translation of Boethius late in life, in 1593, only ten years before her death. At the time she resided at Windsor. Her translation indicates some familiarity with classic learning, though some words are erroneously translated. The choice of the Consolatio, a meditative text emphasising the transcience of worldly goods, cannot be considered without context: not only is the queen nearing her own death, but her dearest friends meet the same fortunes. 

Conclusion.

The influence of Boethius on mediaeval and early modern Europe is clearly significant from a perspective of cultural history; testament to this is the sheer number of vernacular translations and the willingness of translators to pass the thinking of Boethius onto new readers. Boethius contributed greatly to the survival of Greek philosophy in Europe: where books written by other philosophers would soon be censored or burned by the Church, Boethius' approach of attributing Godly quality to philosophy was accepted, and he was raised to sainthood in 1883 for his contribution to the understanding of Providence among Christians. The vernacular translations, too, contributed greatly to the view upon philosophy wherever they were written. Further, the translation of a work so foreign in nature to many of the cultures into which the work was brought demanded a plethora of new vocabulary and considerations. And while this edition of the Consolatio includes but a select few of the translations available in the various European vernaculars, it is our hope that the ones which are available here supply the reader with a good introduction not only to Boethian thinking, but to the way this was perceived in the various regions of Europe throughout the middle ages and beyond. 

1Skeat, W. W. (ed.), 1968, The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Boethius and Troilus, VIII: Introduction.

1Notker was a man of many names: Notker Teutonicus, Notker Labio, Notker von St. Gallen, Notker III, Notker der Deutsche; here, Teutonicus is selected because it appears most immediately connected to his translation of De Consolatio: in his Latin foreword, he describes his own language as Teutonice.

1The transition between what are commonly referred to as Old French and Middle French took place during the 1300s, and is based largely on phonological traits rather than orthographical; thus, a definite line is hard to draw.

1Marty-Laveaux, Charles Joseph (1863). Cahiers de remarques sur l'orthographe françoise. Paris: Jules Gay. p. ix. Retrieved 2012-01-03.




Abbreviations for the whole library.


Bibliography:

Paul Piper (ed.), 1882, "Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius: De Consolatione Philosophiae" in Die Schriften Notkers und seiner Schule, Alfred Holder, Freiburg I. B. & Tübingen 

Simon de Freine:  John E. Matzke (ed.), 1909, "Simund de Freine: Le Roman de Philosophie", in Les Œvres de Simund de Freine, Librairie de Firmin-Didot et c, Paris

Jean de Meun: Dedeck-Héry, V. L., « Boethius' De Consolatione by Jean de Meun », Mediaeval Studies, 14, 1952, p. 165-275



Credits:

Joakim Berg (Notker), Jens Braarvig (Latin), Trond Kruke Salberg (Old French)


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