- From Thomas More’s WorkshopDe Tristitia Christi and the Catena aurea
My hole study shulde be vppon the passion of Chryst and myne owne passage owt of thys worlde.thomas more (1535).1
Imagine Thomas More’s cell in the Tower of London, what he calls his “shop,” and his books, what he refers to as his “implements.” In such a shop and with these tools, More produces his “goods,” among which we count his De Tristitia Christi.2 On June 12, 1535, the King’s Council determines More’s books shall be taken away from him. According to More’s early biographer, Thomas Stapleton, More keeps his blinds drawn down day and night after that. When his jailer asks why, More replies: “Now that the goods and the implements are taken away, the shop must be closed.”3 Less than a month afterwards, More’s trial and execution occurs.4
What are these “implements” that More values so much? We know he uses both the Catena aurea of Thomas Aquinas and John Gerson’s Monotessaron as his “basic tools” for composing De Tristitia. The Catena is a compendium of exegetical comments by Church Fathers, which Aquinas compiles and condenses. His Catena aurea thereby becomes a “golden chain” of linked biblical commentary on specific sections of [End Page 100] the gospel. The subtitle of Monotessaron is Unum ex quattuor, or “one from four,” which indicates how Gerson integrates four gospels into one “harmony” by combining corresponding verses. More’s obvious interest in the passion of Christ and his own imprisoned state leaves him with limited access to books and so he chooses his texts very carefully. Gary Haupt surmises that “nothing could more appropriately express More’s intense concern with the unity of Christendom” than his selection of Gerson’s harmony and Aquinas’s collection of Church Fathers.5 Unity among evangelists and within the tradition is symbolized in More’s selection of texts and in the cause of his imprisonment.
Though Stapleton’s account of More’s reply to his jailer may not be factual, it raises a complex question about how More understands the relationship between his sources and his own composition. Clarence Miller’s commentary on De Tristitia acknowledges Aquinas’s Catena as a source upon which More “relies heavily” because it provides “the groundwork” of More’s biblical exegesis.6 Yet Miller’s subsequent analyses, like others’, have not addressed how the Catena influences More’s habits of composition. There are two reasons I would highlight for this vast scholarly gap, which, in turn, raises the question of how or if the Catena may be more important than critics have hitherto conceived. The first appears as chance because Miller intended but never wrote a section of his commentary that would address More’s biblical exegesis, a subject still in need of further exploration. The second pertains to how scholars assess Erasmus’s influence upon More’s text and the degree to which More developed original theological insights.7 To understand better the problematic question of More’s originality, I will review what he inherits from both Erasmus and the Catena in arguing how he developed these materials in a unique fashion.
Before turning to the evidence, I will state my conclusions. I believe Miller’s assessment that More writes with the habit of arguing opposing cases in order to present his own position illustrates how the Catena provides much of the matter that comprises two crucial [End Page 101] sections of De Tristitia: namely, More’s treatment of Christ’s ironic rebuke to his apostles to “sleep on” and his defense of fearful martyrs. Indeed, More’s selection and exegesis of commentary from the Catena will reveal how he understands his political situation as a person of Roman Catholic faith caught between Henry VIII’s agenda and the papacy of 1535, a subject of recent controversy. On the one side, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009) depicts More, even in his last days, as a “self-absorbed villain,” following popular revisionist scholarship. On the other, historians like Richard Rex and Eamon Duffy have undermined the dominant Whiggish and Protestant...