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  • Paleae:A Clarifying Look at the Meaning of Saint Thomas's Final Words
  • Samuel Klumpenhouwer

In an iconic moment of the medieval Church, the aging Thomas Aquinas looked back upon his life of scholarship after undergoing a mystical experience.1 It was still the morning of a wintry day in 1273, and Thomas had just attended a Mass for the feast of Saint Nicholas. According to Bartholomew of Capua, Thomas was in the midst of composing the third part of his Summa theologiae, on the section dealing with penance. After the Mass, Thomas's secretary, brother Reginald, asked him to continue writing as was their custom. Thomas replied: "Reginald, I cannot—for all that I have written seems to me as straw [paleae]."2 Readers of Thomas have long puzzled over the statement. Brother Reginald was similarly puzzled, and later urged Thomas to continue writing, demanding an explanation. Thomas replied again to his secretary: "All that I have written seems to me as straw [paleae] in comparison to what I saw and what has been revealed to me."3

Generally, paleae is translated as "straw" or "chaff," as distinguished from the kernels of grain. Some scholars argue that paleae should only be translated as "chaff," which refers to the outer husks of grain that were removed during the wind-winnowing process, and which had no practical use.4 Straw, on the other hand, refers to the stalk or stem of the plant, which has many uses. As straw, paleae can also refer by extension to several material products in which straw is used, such as fodder, thatching, and bricks.5 In Latin sources, one will find paleae used in both ways. The [End Page 103] Vulgate, for example, uses paleae to refer to straw and chaff in multiple instances.6

Given the significance of the Thomistic corpus, both now and in the medieval period, it seems odd for Thomas to have described his writings as paleae, whether translated as straw or chaff. Yet that is precisely what the Angelic Doctor did. In order to better understand why that word was chosen, this essay will first provide an overview of how Thomas's paleae have been understood by modern readers. It will then examine other instances of paleae in the Thomistic corpus. Finally, it will detail a largely unknown—although well known to Thomas—use of the word among medieval canonists.

Modern readers of Thomas generally fall into two groups in regards to the word paleae: those who think it indicates that Thomas repudiated his writings, and those who do not. Those who consider it a repudiation sometimes present Thomas as having come to the realization that his life's work had been pointless. Perhaps he realized the ultimate invalidity of human knowledge or systematic thinking.7 As such, he would have seen the intellectual edifice that he previously constructed as truly "chaff"—useless, perhaps even the antithesis of a simple Christ.8

The second group are those who do not think that Thomas repudiated his work, but rather came to see it with a higher perspective. They see the paleae as "straw" that is of little value in comparison to God, but which still has many good uses. For Étienne Gilson, the straw of Thomas is what made the bricks to build European civilization.9 Simon Tugwell points to how straw sometimes represented the literal (which is the lowest) sense of Scripture.10 In a different regard, others have pointed out that it was [End Page 104] straw that filled the manger of Jesus.11 In one way or another, these interpretations build on the clarification that Brother Reginald extracted from his fellow Dominican. Thomas had said in his second reply that his work seemed (videtur) as paleae in comparison to what had been revealed to him. As such, to people who have not had such revelations, the paleae of Thomas remains of much value.12

In order to clarify how paleae was understood during the medieval period, it will be helpful to examine the rest of the Thomistic corpus, where I have counted sixty-eight usages of the word.13 These usages come both from Thomas's own...


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