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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 316-318
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Friedrich von Hügel, Cuthbert Hamilton Turner et les Bollandistes. Correspondance. Présentation, édition et commentaire par Bernard Joassart. [Tabularium hagiographicum, vol. 2.] (Brussels: Société des Bollandistes. 2002. Pp. 157. 40€.)
An adequate appreciation of this book requires the reader to have some sense of the Société des Bollandistes and its extraordinary history. As the late Benedictine historian Dom David Knowles noted forty years ago, the Bollandists were "the first great enterprise of co-operative scholarship in the modern world; and theirs is the only enterprise of the seventeenth century which still continues in active function." Père Charles De Smedt (1831-1911), the group's president at the beginning of the twentieth century, modestly defined the Société in 1907 as "an association of ecclesiastical scholars engaged in editing the Acta Sanctorum... a great hagiographical collection begun during the first years of the seventeenth century, and continued to our own day."
The idea which eventually led to the creation of this group enterprise came from Heribert Rosweyde (1569-1629), a Flemish Jesuit professor of philosophy in the order's college at Douai, who used his spare hours to explore the libraries of neighboring monasteries. His special interest in hagiography led him to the discovery that ancient texts of the manuscripts of saints' lives were quite different from the elaborate effusions of their later, more literary editors. Rosweyde persuaded his superiors to allow him to collect and publish the texts in their original forms. He created a plan and publicly announced his intentions, but died with not a single page ready for the printer. The Belgian Jesuit provincial asked John van Bolland, S.J. (1596-1665), to examine Rosweyde's papers and suggest what to do with them. Bolland realized the value of the collection, persuaded his superior to make a commitment of manpower and space, completely reworked Rosweyde's original plan, and the greatest hagiographical project ever imagined was underway. With the publication of the first volumes of the texts, replete with introductory notes, the scholarly world of Europe was [End Page 316] both intrigued and supportive, and even leading Protestant scholars in those antagonistic times sent to these Jesuits manuscripts and scholarly communications. Bolland was soon joined by the intellectually outstanding young Jesuit Godfrey Henschen (1601-1681), whose erudition and methodological improvements were typical of what was to come from the group. Daniel von Papenbroeck (1628-1714), another brilliant scholar, joined Bolland and Henschen in 1659 and in 1660 began with Henschen a two-and-one-half-year tour of major European seats of ecclesiastical manuscripts to copy them for their work. Not one eighteenth-century Bollandist name matches the abilities of the aforementioned three, though the work went forward satisfactorily, and then in 1773 the Jesuit order was suppressed by the pope. The Bollandists and their library and work were sheltered by the Benedictine abbey of Caudenberg in Brussels and were supported by a stipend from the government. However, when the sympathetic Maria Theresa was succeeded by her son Joseph II, the abbey was suppressed and the Bollandists' library was ordered to be sold. The Premonstratensian abbey at Tongerloo arranged to take the Bollandist library and printing equipment, and to shelter the Bollandists themselves; but in 1794 the French revolutionary Republic invaded Belgium, dispersing the Premonstratensians and suppressing the Bollandists. Although the Jesuits were restored to the Church in 1814, the Bollandists were not reconstituted until 1837.
Any group of scholars using the best critical historical methods of the day to interpret the past is bound to run into opposition from vested interests, when some of the latter's truths are demonstrated to be myths or even fabrications. Already in the seventeenth century, when Daniel von Papenbroeck suggested that the Carmelite rule did not date back to the prophet Elias—a belief universally held by those religious—, he was attacked by dozens of scurrilous pamphlets and accused of heresy by the Spanish Inquisition. Writing in 1907 of the Bollandists' work since the...