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Bernardus Silvestris

The Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine
Andrew HicksAndrew Hicks

Bernardus Silvestris (c.1100–c.1160 [before 1178])  

B. has been something of a protean figure in modern scholarship. His identification with Bernard of Chartres (an invention of eighteenth-century scholarship later endorsed by V. Cousin and B. Hauréau) was first repudiated by A. Clerval (1882). Likewise the long-standing interpretative strain that had castigated B. as a pagan humanist committed to a dangerously unorthodox pantheism was first criticized by E. Gilson (1928) and later refuted decisively by T. Silverstein (1948). In a more recent line of interpretation, B. has been linked to the ‘School of Chartres’ and thus read in the context of other Chartrian authors, including Bernard of Chartres, Thierry of Chartres, and William of Conches (Gregory; Chenu; Wetherbee 1972; but see Stock 237 ff.). Challenges to the School of Chartres as either historical reality or intellectual disposition, however, have prompted a line of scholarship that has treated B.'s oeuvre in more individualistic terms and denied his easy identification with a clear ‘Chartrian’ mentality (Ratkowitsch; Godman; Otten).

Our scant knowledge of B.'s life and teaching has facilitated this protean identity. Matthew of Vendôme, B.'s most noted pupil, records that he learned the ars dictaminis from decus Turonense magistri Silvestris (Epistula 1.3.69–70). The Cosmographia refers twice to Tours and environs, and a commentary on Martianus (commonly attributed to B.) several times uses Orléans as a reference point. Hence, the few hints in B.'s oeuvre and the testimony of contemporary witnesses depict a successful magister active at Tours (likely) and familiar with Orléans (tentatively). His only connection to Chartres is literary: it was to Thierry of Chartres (chancellor of Chartres in the 1140s) that he dedicated his most successful work, the Cosm. (1143/8). The only other work securely attributed to B. is the Mathematicus, a poem in elegiac couplets perhaps composed around the same time as the Cosm. Deftly exploring the themes of free will and fate, the Mathematicus culminates in the protagonist's suicide (despite the condemnation of suicide in many of B.'s sources, including Aug. civ. 1.20). The commentaries commonly attributed to B. on Vergil's Aeneid (CV, 1125/30) and Martianus Capella's De nuptiis(CM, 1127/50) are of uncertain authenticity and unknown date. There is insufficient manuscript evidence either to prove or to deny decisively B.'s authorship, and challenges to their authenticity remain inconclusive (e.g. Evans).

I. B.'s Use of Augustine

It has been argued that Aug. is the ‘common ingredient’ of the various Platonisms developed and articulated in the twelfth century (Chenu 60). But this generalization is not borne out by a careful reading of individual authors. While it remains true that Aug. was an important source for twelfth-century speculative theology (cf. Hugh of St Victor, Thierry of Chartres), the same cannot be said for those authors who were more inclined toward natural philosophy and cosmology. For B. (as for Bernard of Chartres and William of Conches), Aug. remained well in the background, occasionally cited but more often ignored. In the whole of his oeuvre, B. cites Aug. by name only six times (all in CM). Although we find few Augustinian sources for B.'s cosmology and natural philosophy, some of his themes do have broad Augustinian precedent. Indeed, the motivating impulse behind twelfth-century cosmological speculation, the ascent per creaturas ad creatorem (cf. CM 3.57–9; CV ad Aen. 5.723, p. 27.19–26), has an impeccable Augustinian pedigree. Ultimately grounded in Rom. 1:20, this Pauline principle found strong expression in Aug., who argues in De doctrina Christiana 1.4.4 that ‘by means of what is corporeal and temporal we may lay hold upon that which is spiritual and eternal’. This principle is likewise built into the very structure of Aug.'s De Trinitate. Summarizing the trajectory of his argument, Aug. notes that the Trinity's ineffable light (lux illa ineffabilis) required him to build toward that light through the sustained contemplation of creatura (Trin. 15.6.10). And for Aug., as for B., this ascent ad creatorem is necessarily imperfect; no form of human ascent can reach the divine. Finally, Aug.'s approving citations of the Platonici (principally civ. 8), though the term did not imply the same authors in the twelfth century as it had in the fifth, may have granted twelfth-century intellectuals broad licence to utilize Platonic sources to attain spiritual truths (e.g., Peter Abelard, Theologica Christiana, 1.118; 2.29–36). It is only in this sense of an ‘Augustinian precedent’ that we can most meaningfully speak of B.'s ‘use’ of Aug.

II. The Cosmographia

The Cosm. is a prosimetrum (alternating prose and verse) which allegorizes the creation and harmonious arrangement of the universe and the human being. As such, the work has a hexameral precedent in Aug.'s De Genesi ad litteram, but the relationship is more distant than Gilson (1928) had supposed. Instead of following the traditional hexameral model, B. derived the work's structure from the Calcidian division of the Timaeus. Calcidius divided his (partial) translation of Plato's Timaeus into two parts: the first, to 39e, details the causes and creation of the world; the second, 40a to 53c (where the translation concludes), concerns the creation of gods and the human person, both body and soul. Similarly, B.'s first book, ‘Megacosmos’, is devoted to the creation of the larger universe, and the second, ‘Microcosmos’, to the creation of the human being and the union of body and soul. The Cosm., in fact, is thoroughly grounded in the late antique Platonic syncretism of Calcidius, Macrobius, Martianus Capella, and Boethius. And alongside its numerous Hermetic affinities, it also exploits aspects of Christian Neo-Platonism, primarily by way of Eriugena and B.'s near contemporary, Hugh of St Victor. Other sources ranging from Cicero, Seneca, Apuleius, Firmicus Maternus, and Nemesius to Constantinus Africanus, Adelard of Bath, and Abu Ma'shar.

Although the Cosm's literary form precluded any scholastic citation or argumentation, it remains noteworthy that there are no obvious moments of sustained engagement with Aug. Indeed, his absence from this impressive litany of sources is conspicuous. But there are fleeting hints of lexical and conceptual concord. B.'s etymological wordplay on Proserpina, ut proserpendo proferat illa capud (creeping forth, she [sc. Proserpina] shows her head: Cosm 2.8.24), parallels De civitate Dei 7.20 and 24 (both citing Varro), but this fanciful etymology is mentioned elsewhere (e.g. Isidore 8.11.60; Remigius, Comment. in Martianum 36.4, etc.) and need not have come directly from Aug. Likewise, the malignitas of the initial informitas that besets silva (prime matter) at the outset of the work (Cosm. 1.1–2) perhaps recalls Aug.'s view of the informitas of life when it is turned from the light of wisdom in Gn. litt. 1.5.10–11 (cf. Wetherbee 1973, 38). But B.'s insistence on the residual malignitas of silva, even after the reception of form (e.g. Cosm. 2.12.19–22), pushes further than Aug. had thought prudent (especially in light of Aug.'s attempt to eliminate all traces of Manichaean dualism, cf. civ. 13.16). Finally, the unknowability of the divine—expressed, for instance, by B.'s phrase ea lux inaccessibilis (Cosm. 2.5.3; cf. 1 Tim. 6:16)—has well-known Augustinian implications (cf. Trin. 15.6.10, cited above), though it is equally Eriugenian and Boethian.

More often, however, the poetic expression of B.'s cosmic myth confronts or challenges Augustinian positions. Creation ex nihilo, the sine qua non of Augustinian cosmology (cf. Gn. litt. 1.14.28–15.29; civ. 12.2), is marginalized in the Cosm. and left (purposefully?) ambiguous. So too B.'s language occasionally hints at Stoic apocatastasis, the cyclical return of all the world's ages, and while Aug. had forcefully repudiated this belief in civ. 12.14, B. purposely leaves it unresolved: ‘it remains an open question whether the events of time past are not seen again in the same sequence’ (Cosm. 1.4.11). As a last example, B.'s poetic avowal of the soul's celestial pre-existence may have struck some of his twelfth-century readers as contrary to Aug. In Cosm. 2.3.8, while Natura seeks Urania as a collaborator in the creation of man, she passes the Tropic of Cancer and beholds a throng of souls bewailing their inevitable descent ‘to the kingdom of Dis’, i.e. into bodies. This, a learned reference to Macrobius (Comm. 1.11.11–12.2; cf. CV p. 30.1–15), contradicted the standard twelfth-century line on the soul's origin, which denied any celestial pre-existence (including CM 6.513  ff.). Although Aug. had left the problem unsolved (cf. retr. 1.1.3), twelfth-century writers nevertheless attributed to Aug. the dogmatic position that ‘new souls are created daily’ (e.g. William of Conches, Dragmaticon 6.25.6; Phil. 4.51; but cf. lib. arb. 3.20.56; Gn. litt. 10.3.4)—a useful reminder that Augustinian orthodoxy is not an ahistorical constant.

III. Commentaries on Vergil and Martianus

The commentaries commonly attributed to B. exhibit a style and even a lexicon distinct from the Cosm. But the commentaries do share with Cosm. (and other twelfth-century texts) an exegetical procedure whereby fabulous tales are read as the ‘coverings’ or ‘veils’ (integumenta, involucra) for philosophical and spiritual truths (CV pp. 9.16–10.4; CM 2.70–113; see Jeauneau). The immediate source is Macrobius’ well-known discussion of poetic fictions (Comm. 1.2.9–18), but there is patristic precedent as well, including Aug.'s use of involucrum (cf. en. Ps. 126.11, 127.2; s. 95; c. ep. Parm. 1.14.21), although the extension of this hermeneutic application of integumenta or involucra beyond scriptural exegesis is a uniquely twelfth-century development. If in the Cosm. B. sets out to forge a new Platonic myth, to rewrite (we might say) the Timaeus for the twelfth century, then the commentaries approach the same from the opposite perspective: they do not veil cosmogony sub integumento but unwrap the integumenta and involucra employed by the supremely philosophical poet, Vergil, and the equally philosophical mythologizer, Martianus (Stock 31–62).

CV largely reinvigorates a Macrobian approach to Vergil, and in so doing it has little need for Aug. On only one occasion is there lexical overlap with Aug., the phrase consuetudo est quasi altera natura (‘habit is a kind of second nature’: CV ad Aen. 6.1, p. 32.2–3; cf. Aug. mus. 6.7.19; c. Iul. imp. 1.69; 5.59), but this maxim is not unique to Aug. (e.g. Cicero, De finibus 5.25.74) and is found in other twelfth-century texts (e.g. William of Conches, Glosae super Platonem 49.14). The only direct citation of Aug. (CV ad Aen. 6.700, p. 118.16) occurs in the spurious ‘conclusion’ to the commentary present in a single ms. (all others break off at Aen. 6.636).

CM is the sole work in B.'s oeuvre to cite Aug. by name (six times) and adduce his testimony as an authoritative proof-text. In a digression on marriage (CM 3.732 ff.), occasioned by foedere complacito (‘in a pleasing union’: Martianus 1.1), B. quotes De vera religione 28.51 and alludes to De adulterinis coniugiis 1.25.31. Arguing that the sensible world is a book inscribed with signs of the divine (CM 5.605–11; cf. Cosm. 2.1.3), he adduces Aug.'s pronouncement on the beauty and profundity of the created world (loosely s. 141.2). Aug.'s argument for the creation of the soul not from any divine essence but ex nihilo (cf. ep. 166.2.3; Gn. litt. 7.28.43) informs B.'s discussion of the soul (6.407 ff.). Likewise, B.'s analogy of Scripture and mirror (6.768 ff.) paraphrases Aug. on the inexhaustible reference of scriptural language, which speaks to each reader according to his capacity (cf. Gn. litt. 5.3.6). Finally, an occurrence of vox (Martianus 1.25; CM 10.27) is glossed as the vox sapientiae and identified, teste Augustino, with the Verbum (cf. Trin. 15.11.20).

Even when B. is in agreement with Aug., the substance and structure of his argument do not always concord with its original Augustinian context. For instance, B.'s defence (against William of Conches) of the existence of the supracelestial waters (CM 8.410 ff.) toes the Augustinian line (Gn. litt. 2.5.9). But although B. probably knew Aug.'s affirmative position on the issue, he replies to William's denial, which he characterizes as non philosophicum, by offering natural-philosophical arguments that necessitate (or at least allow) the existence of supracelestial waters. While Aug. had argued that the supracelestial waters demonstrate that scriptural truth exceeds our understanding, the very same problem for B. occasions the philosophical proof of scriptural truth. The conclusion is Augustinian, but B.'s argument undercuts its original intent.


Aug. is not central to B.'s thought. Though occasionally cited, Aug. is more often consigned to a ‘neutral’ background tacitly assumed or contradicted without comment. This movement away from Aug. is perhaps symptomatic of a larger shift in twelfth-century thought: the liberation of (natural-)philosophical speculation from theology. It is a repeated theme in the twelfth century that patristic authority alone is insufficient to ground philosophical, natural-philosophical, and even theological truths. This sentiment was expressed near the beginning of the century by Adelard of Bath, who elevates what he learned, guided by reason, from his Arabic masters above the ‘image of authority’ (pictura auctoritatis), which he derides as a halter (capistrum: Quaestiones naturales 6). Likewise near the end of the century Alan of Lille wittily quipped that ‘because authority has a waxen nose that can be bent in different ways, she must be fortified by rational arguments’ (De fide catholica 30, PL 210:333A). In B.'s eclectic and unique cosmological synthesis, Aug. was supplemented and sometimes supplanted by a revived interest in late antique Platonism and Hermeticism, as well as by the ‘new’ knowledge entering the Western philosophical canon by way of translation from Arabic (and Greek). It was these sources, not Aug., that inspired B.'s most imaginative interpretations; without them the Cosm., ‘possibly the most complex literary product of the early twelfth century’ (Stock 14), is literally unthinkable.

Andrew Hicks

Alan of Lille; Bernard of Chartres; Boethius; Eriugena, John Scottus; Hugh of St Victor; Isdidore of Seville; Peter Abelard; Platonic and Neo-Platonic Tradition; Remigius of Auxerre; Thierry of Chartres; William of Conches

Primary literature

Bernard Silvestris, Cosmographia, ed. P. Dronke (Leiden 1978) [= Cosm.].Find this resource:

    ——, Mathematicus, ed. J. Prelog, M. Heim, and M. Kiesslich (St Ottilien 1993).Find this resource:

      ——, The Commentary on Martianus Capella's De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii Attributed to Bernardus Silvestris, ed. H. J. Westra (Toronto 1986) [= CM].Find this resource:

        ——, The Commentary on the First Six Books of the Aeneid of Vergil Commonly Attributed to Bernardus Silvestris, ed. J. W. and E. F. Jones (Lincoln, NE 1977) [= CV].Find this resource:

          Secondary literature

          M. D. Chenu, Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century. Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West, ed. and trans. J. Taylor and L. K. Little (Chicago 1968).Find this resource:

            A. Clerval, ‘Bernard de Chartres’, Les Lettres chrétiennes 4 (1882) 390–7.Find this resource:

              M. Evans, ‘The Ysagoge in theologiam and the Commentaries Attributed to Bernard Silvestris’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 54 (1991) 1–42.Find this resource:

                E. Gilson, ‘La Cosmogonie de Bernardus Silvestris’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge 3 (1928) 5–24.Find this resource:

                  P. Godman, The Silent Masters. Latin Literature and its Censors in the High Middle Ages (Princeton 2000).Find this resource:

                    T. Gregory, Platonismo medievale. Studi e ricerche (Rome 1958).Find this resource:

                      E. Jeauneau, ‘L’Usage de la notion d’integumentum à travers les gloses de Guillaume de Conches’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge 24 (1958) 35–100.Find this resource:

                        W. Otten, From Paradise to Paradigm. A Study of Twelfth-Century Humanism (Leiden 2004).Find this resource:

                          C. Ratkowitsch, Die Cosmographia des Bernardus Silvestris. Eine Theodizee (Cologne 1995).Find this resource:

                            T. Silverstein, ‘The Fabulous Cosmogony of Bernardus Silvestris’, Modern Philology 46 (1948–9) 92–116.Find this resource:

                              B. Stock, Myth and Science in the Twelfth Century (Princeton 1972).Find this resource:

                                W. Wetherbee, The Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris (New York 1973).Find this resource:

                                  ——, Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century (Princeton 1972).Find this resource: