One particular set of over fifty sermons attributed to Augustine are now universally accepted as spurious. They were obviously written after the formal beginning of the Augustinian Order in the thirteenth century to bolster the claim that the Order came directly from communities formed by Augustine – a fanciful hope that many Augustinians then entertained. These sermons are called Sermones ad fraters in eremo (“Sermons to the brothers in the hermitage”), suggesting that Augustine preached to followers of his living in hermitages he had founded near Hippo.
The sermons are available in Latin in Jacques-Paul Minge’s huge 177-volume Patrologia Latina of 1844-1855; see PL 40, columns 1233-1358. Minge included seventy-six sermons under the heading “Pseudo Augustine.” The first fifty of them appear to be by the same author, and are the ones being referred to herein.
Had it been true, it would have added prestige to the Order which, unlike the two larger mendicant orders commenced by Saints Dominic and Francis of Assisi, had no sole founder. Additionally, this fiction would have meant the Order (of Hermits) of Saint Augustine was older that the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, thereby allowing the former Order to claim to be the “true sons” and the “first sons” of Augustine.
If these sermons were forged before the year 1327, there was the war of words raging because the Canons had sole guardianship of the tomb of Augustine. If these sermons were forged soon after 1327, there was the war of words resulting from Pope John XXII in January 1327 granting to the Order of Saint Augustine shared custodianship of the tomb with the strongly protesting Canons Regular. It took eleven years, i.e., until 1338, for this dual arrangement at Pavia to be settled by a written agreement. This eleven-year period of contention at Pavia between 1327 and 1338, in which the whole Augustinian world was interested, is a key period in the history of these spurious sermons.
When were these spurious sermons written?
They could not all have been completed before 1332, and were widely circulating by 1350. For example, an English Augustinian and scholar, Geoffrey Hardeby O.S.A., (1320 – c. 1385) knew of them but refused to cite them in his work De vita evangelica (“The Evangelical Life”). Hardeby refused to use them, not because he disbelieved them himself, but because he knew they would not assist his arguments because many other Augustinians held them as false. Thus, although these sermons certainly had achieved some circulation by about the year 1350, a degree of suspicion about their authenticity existed right from the beginning.
On the contrary, Jordan of Saxony O.S.A. included them in his manuscript, Collectanea Augustiniana ("Augustinian Collection") that he prepared and presented to the Augustinian studium generale (international house of studies) at Paris in 1343. Jordan used them in his subsequent formative handbook on the authentic Augustinian life, his Liber Vitasfratrum ("Life of the Brethren").
At Douai during 1651, Christopher de Wulf O.S.A. (sometimes called Christopher Lupus) published a thorough critique of these sermons, and conclusively proved that they were forgeries. The forger - or forgers - of these Sermones ad fraters in eremo (“Sermons to the brothers in the hermitage”) used passages from three of the earliest Augustinian historians to leave Augustinian historical material to posterity.
These were Nicholas of Alessandria (writing in 1332), Henry of Friemar (writing sometime before his death in 1340) and an Augustinian now called the Anonymous Florentine (writing most likely in 1329 - 1331).The certainty that the forger copied from these three Augustinians, rather than the possibility that they all copied from the forger(s), is based opn the fact that none of these three historians mentioned these Sermones ad fratres in eremo.
Not all early manuscript collections of these sermons contained the same number of proported Sermones ad fratres in eremo - the number varies from twenty-three to seventy-six. Even with that variance, some of the sermons do not appear in all editions. On the evidence of the above chronology, these spurious sermons could not have been all completed before 1332, and were much copied and widespread by 1350.
As will be detailed hereunder, two copies of these sermons still exist in manuscripts that were handwritten in 1347. (The printing press was not invented until 1440.) When these spurious sermons were included in collections of Augustine’s genuine sermons, except for a few bizarre passages they did not stand out as forgeries except to scholars of Augustinian history (especially seeing the false sermons were giving “historical evidence” that many Augustinians actually desired to be factual.)
What mainly was called “history” in the Order at that era, however, was polemical, i.e., trying to prove Augustine’s links to the Order, rather than seeking out the truth that no such historical connection existed. The earliest-known extant collection of Augustine’s sermons in which these forged sermons appear is a manuscript dated 1347. It is now kept in the public library of Toulouse, France.
There is a second manuscript there also, with the same sermons. Both manuscripts originally belonged to the Augustinian monastery in Toulouse, which was confiscated during the French Revolution. One absurd claim of the sermons was that Augustine travelled to Ethiopia. "I was already Bishop of Hippo, when I went into Ethiopia with some servants of Christ there to preach the Gospel. In this country we saw many men and women without heads, who had two great eyes in their breasts; and in countries still more southly, we saw people who had but one eye in their foreheads."
Because of this sermon and further embellishments it prompted in later writings, some sections of the Order eventually believed there had once been a Province of the Order, or something very close to it, in Ethiopia – which was completely incorrect. In the above extract, the word “southly” is a geographical error, as Ethiopia is not south of Hippo. Another one of these sermons refers to Augustine’s disputing personally with Arius on Christian doctrine, and another is a funeral oration for a bishop of Carthage otherwise unknown to history – and probably non-existent.
There have been numerous attempts over the centuries to detect the identity of the forger, but without success. Even his nationality is uncertain, and some theories (conveniently?!) hold that he was not even an Augustinian.
There was another document, called the Letter of Sigisbert to Macedonius on Saint Augustine, which is later than the forged sermons but was written for the same purpose. The purpose was to prove that the Order of Saint Augustine was founded directly by Saint Augustine himself. This letter was published, with the same purpose in mind, by Ambrose Massari da Cori O.S.A., the Augustinian Prior General in 1476 – 1485, in his In defensorium Ordininis (“In defence of the Order”) in 1481.
Photo Gallery For the Augnet gallery about the Augustinian history of Pavia (including the two images on this page), click here.