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  • Unicuique suum.The Restitution to John of Wales, OFM of Parts of Some Mirrors for Princes Circulating in Late Medieval Portugal1
  • Marco Toste (bio)

I. John of Wales in Iberia

One of the most peculiar features of the transmission of texts in medieval times is the custom of reproducing long passages from a text originating from another author, whether unchanged or with slight modifications, with no reference to that fact by the author responsible. Moreover, through paraphrases, abbreviationes, breviaria, compendia, compilationes, or even florilegia and tabulae, medieval culture disassociated numerous authors of their texts, sometimes even transforming the ideas in the original text and extending their reception beyond any intention foreseen by the primary author. Because of this, whenever we approach a medieval text, whether published or extant in manuscript form, we need to bear in mind that the content of the text we are reading might well be an unacknowledged reproduction of an earlier text, which in its turn could have been a copy of another text, itself already a reproduction, resulting in a long chain of transmission, an infinite Borgean library which remains to be catalogued.

However, differences are perceptible across this long chain. A reproduction need not be utterly slavish and may be an assortment of copied parts with rephrasing or rewritings by the copyist. It may have been a silent tribute to an authority or else a mere expedient to save time when completing a text. There are real differences in the methods and motives for copying a passage depending on the type of text; in any case, the use of texts of others was an essential part of the literary culture of the medieval period, to such an extent that while medievals did distinguish between author and compiler (or collector or compositor),2 they nevertheless [End Page 1] maintained that an author could use the words of others and correspondingly assigned to the compiler a significant and prestigious cultural role, as he organised and reshaped available materials in order to facilitate access to them, sometimes giving a new meaning to those materials.3 The compilations were typically aimed at a wide readership, and thus often drew extensively from a common heritage of stock passages, the result of long periods during which the initial texts had undergone modifications and the names of the authors had been lost. This is evident, for instance, in the use of exempla, illustrative stories and narratives which were used for rhetorical and moralising purposes. Once the exempla were removed from their original (con)text, they underwent a process of crystallisation leading to a short and fixed form which was easy to memorize or at least easily remembered. These stories could be used by preachers or moralist writers. Given their great utility, collections of exempla were compiled and classified by topics. These compilations were an important resource for medieval authors.4 An exemplum was thus reproduced in its entirety [End Page 2] and often with no indication of the source or the author, whose name or work were indeed sometimes unknown to medieval authors.

A major example of how exempla were transmitted can be found in the works of the Franciscan John of Wales,5 himself a collector of exempla from the most diverse sources—in great measure classical sources—sometimes through Jerome, Augustine or John of Salisbury’s Policraticus. John carefully mentioned his sources, though not always the intermediaries that made them available, but later authors who made use of John’s works always failed to name John as their source, as we shall see throughout this paper. As John’s works consisted in gathering classical exempla to illustrate the definitions he focussed on, later authors could reproduce the same classical exempla with no reference to John but referring to the classical source John had used and cited, thus obtaining greater literary prestige. The fact that John’s work relied chiefly on exempla also promoted its wide distribution, since it could be used both by university authors in search of edifying moral exempla and by laymen interested in simple instruction.

Alongside of his exegetical and homiletic writings, John of Wales is the author of two main works, the Breviloquium de...


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