On New Year's Day in the year 404, North Africans were out in the streets celebrating the feast of Calends, joining in both traditional ceremonies and raucous revels. Augustine was in Carthage, it seems, and used the occasion to deliver a sprawling sermon some three hours in length.
He denounced in depth and detail the hazards of demon-wooing pagan rites and the dead end fallacies of pagan intellectualism. He then set out the Christian alternative: Christus Mediator et Sacerdos, Christ the mediator and priest, whose graced sacramenta redeem and transfigure his body, the church.
Discovery at Mainz
This sprawl of a sermon wss one of 26 new sermons, first discovered in 1990 by François Dolbeau, who found them in a fifteenth century Carthusian manuscript now preserved in the Stadtbibliothek (State Library) at Mainz, Germany.
How could some of his sermons have been located only as relatively recently as the year 1990? Coming from the centuries before the printing press was invented, there are 15,000 manuscripts containing copies of some part of the works of Augustine scattered throughout Europe. And then in 1990, François Dolbeau, a French scholar, discovered that a manuscript in the Stadtsbibliothek of Mainz that previously had not been examined very carefully.
It contained a group of twenty-six sermons of Augustine. Some of them were quite lengthy, most of them unknown, and some giving the full text of sermons that were known only from excerpts made in the Middle Ages. As a group these sermons were practical rather than profound. Some of these sermons were preached in the year 397 in Carthage shortly after Augustine was consecrated Bishop of Hippo. He then preached as a comparative newcomer, to various churches in that city and in smaller chapels in surrounding villages.
Above: A photo of a manuscript page of the sermons of Augustine found in Mainz, Germany in the year 1990. It contains column after column of Latin in medieval script written on both sides of a parchment that is not completely opaque. The presence of the shadow of the writing on the reverse side of the parchment makes it a draining task to read documents such as these.
Congregations wanted to hear what he had to say on issues that Catholics were debating vigorously among themselves. In the newly-rediscovered Dolbeau sermons, Augustine is seen responding to these questions with quite unusual openness and independence of mind. And in the year 404 these new Dolbeau sermons show Augustine as the ambitious reformer of Catholic piety and the upholder of a truly universal and intransigent vision of Catholicism as the only true and natural religion of humankind. Scholars have accepted these sermons as "long lost sheep" that are genuine. Indeed, the titles of some of them appeared in the incomplete list of the sermons of Augustine that Possidius compiled soon after the death of Augustine.
Peter Brown, a twentieth-century contemporary Augustinian scholar, has proposed the theory that these sermons were easily placed aside during the Middle Ages because, rather than contain lofty theology, they essentially focused on the small details of Christian life in North Africa in the time of Augustine. Brown explained that these were not sermons and letters devoted only to the timeless verities of Catholic theology, to which medieval scribes at any time and any place could relate. Rather, they were rich in details of daily life and deeply rooted in the soil of a very distant, fifth-century North Africa.
He suggested that the monks and scholars of northern Europe, who still read and copied with zeal the formal, theological works of Augustine, paid little attention to copying these vivid documents because they regarded them as too focused on a pagan-tinged world that medieval Christianity considered that it had by then left behind.
Discovery at Erfurt
Just as some sermons of Augustine were re-discovered at Mainz, Germany in the year 1990, another manuscript was discovered at Erfurt, in central Germany in 2007 that brought to light a further six sermons by Augustine. The discovery came about as Isabella Schiller, Dorothea Weber and Clemens Feastman of the Church Fathers Commission of the Austrian Academy of Sciences were undertaking research on the works of Augustine in handwritten form, i.e., in manuscripts produced before the invention off the printing press.
The three researchers identified the texts in a more than 800-year-old manuscript collection in the Bibliotheca Amploniana at Erfurt. Isabella Schiller, one of the three Viennese researchers, noticed that the small, 270-page, book of sermons by St Augustine (354-430), which she was working on, contained sermons that were not listed in her databank of Augustine's sermons.
The manuscript (see photos at right) was stored in its own pouch. It measures only 12.5 cms by 10 cms. As well as these six “new” sermons by Augustine, the manuscript contains twenty other already-known sermons by Augustine, some of which scholars have in recent centuries unanimously declared as spurious (i.e., “false sermons of St Augustine”). The manuscript also contains seventy lectures or sermons by other theologians of late antiquity.
The Bibliotheca Amploniana at Erfurt University is the largest complete book collection of any one medieval scholar in the world. Its 600 volumes were left to the university by the Westphalian theologian and doctor of medicine Amplonius Rating de Berka (1363-1435). It is thought that this manuscript reached the Bibliotheca Amploniana at Erfurt University after being produced in England in the second half of the twelfth century. Structural and handwriting similarities to other English manuscripts provide such a clue..
Three of the sermons concern almsgiving. St Augustine examines the relationship between giving alms to the bishop and the latter's duty to support his flock in return. In another sermon about St Cyprian, who was martyred in 258, Augustine criticises the practice of holding drunken orgies on martyrs' feast days. And one sermon is on the reality of the resurrection of the dead and on believing in the truth of biblical prophecies. It is probable that more “lost sermons” of Augustine will be discovered in coming decades, especially now that the process is taking place of computer cataloguing and cross referencing all copies of Augustine’s sermons in the many thousands of medieval manuscripts located in various parts of the world.
Photos (at right) Picture 1: Front cover of manuscript. Picture 2: Storage pouch of manuscript. Picture 3: Top end of manuscript. Picture 4: A page of the manuscript. LinkAugustine find proved authentic. This article covers in more detail the information presented above. http://www.fathersofthechurch.com/2008/09/28/augustine-lost-and-found