John Milton's Largest Manuscript

July 30, 2013

The Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8: De Doctrina Christiana, Vol. 1

Authored by John K. Hale, University of Otago, co-editor of the De Doctrina Christiana, Volume 1 and Volume 2

John K. Hale co-edited and translated with J. Donald Cullington the De Doctrina Christiana, Milton's exposition of Christian theology, painstakingly built up from thousands of citations of the bible. Some scholars have doubted Milton's authorship of the work, which is known from a single, complex, Latin manuscript, dated to after Milton had gone blind, the work of a team of assistants following his dictation as he composed and revised.

After the years of working with Donald Cullington on the Oxford edition of Milton’s De Doctrina, it’s a pleasure to reflect on the experience now it exists both as a book and in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (OSEO).

The first and hardest thing was to transcribe the manuscript, Milton’s largest. The task was spiced by controversy since 1990 over authorship: it sharpened my gazing at the scribal evidence. The corrections, expansions, and changes of mind I transcribed convinced me that they had Milton’s listening ear and dictating voice controlling them. They showed a fastidious stylist, taking a form of words from a source then adjusting its word-order on hearing them read back. In one place, they showed a mind uneasy with a source’s distinction; accepting and applying it, then abandoning it, as a distinction without a difference [I. 17-18]. Did the law of Moses bind “especially” or “solely” the children of Israel [I. 26]?  Alterations range from tiny adjustments to a major rethink. Expansions range from the simply adding more and more proof-texts, through to an intriguing because gratuitous comment on usury, that it benefits the borrower more than the lender. There’s comfort for mortgagors.

All such changes sustained or sharpened my attention through many humdrum pages. The record of their winding trail should interest all who doubted Milton’s authorship or have a vested interest in it.

The other aspect which most held my attention on the long haul was the resourcefulness of the Latin voice. Impossible to convey in translation, it’s urgent to proclaim it, since the Latin words are Milton’s original words; his individual voice again, as in dictating changes.

Translating was the most clearly demarcated aspect of our collaboration. Though we both looked at everything, Donald took first go at Englishing the hundreds of biblical citations which comprise half of the whole text. They are in a Latin quite unlike Milton’s; literal (like the Vulgate) in keeping the word-order of Hebrew and other originals. Yet their Latin has moments when Milton’s MS matches neither the Protestant Latin bible which he normally used, nor other known sources like the Vulgate or Beza’s commentary on the New Testament. At such moments, new questions demand to be asked. Is it for greater fidelity that Milton is doing the work himself, or from special interest in the topic? Either way, Donald’s painstaking exactitude has uncovered products of Milton’s mind, previously unrecognized as such.

As to the translating of Milton’s own Latin, Donald formulated our criteria as accuracy, completeness, and clarity or intelligibility. We set ourselves to translate more literally than our predecessors, not just to help diffident readers of Milton’s Latin relate it to the English, but to keep Milton’s longueurs or vehemence on view.

In all this, and the various kinds of annotation, our priorities were linguistic and philological. Different priorities had obtained in previous editions. With our aim being a new transcription of the MS and a literal rendering of it, we had not room to gather our predecessors’ historical and theological notes. Our edition is large enough without being a variorum. We have commented to explain something new or to correct misunderstandings. Because the index is made from the Introduction and Notes only, it omits many topics and most of the teeming biblical citations. (The citations are already assembled in Bauman’s purpose-built Scripture Index to DDC.)

The OSEO version puts some of this to rights, since the user can seek and gather the data wanted from the main text itself (or the translation if the user must do it that way). Suppose, for instance, you want to know how De Doctrina speaks of Roman Catholicism. Our index offers nothing, because on Roman doctrine or authority as topics we had little to add. And Milton himself thought the Catholic menace had receded (a sure sign he was writing before 1660). It is wrong-headed Protestants whom he labours to enlighten.

But using OSEO, a reader can garner the occurrences of relevant words. Not under “Catholic,” mind you, since Milton denies adherents of the Roman religion the title of catholic. Instead, you go looking for Romani, papistae, pontificii, and further synonyms; then for a bonus you can reflect on the nuancing fluctuations of the naming itself. When he speaks of Romani, his Latin is restrained and almost respectful: see the Preface to I. 5 De Filio. Pontificii is less neutral, but remains less derogatory than Papistae. How does each name connect to the topic, or context, or state of the MS? These are questions worth asking, and now readily answerable.

Another new enquiry could be, to see which parts of the Bible engrossed him more, since even while believing “nothing but what is vouched for by scripture,” he is not interested in all of it alike. Using OSEO, one could check how often he uses Proverbs, because of a hunch that he liked it. And ask, Does he use it unusually much? Does he merely use it for questions of conduct, in the parts of Book Two where conduct dominates? Does he cite words, phrases, or whole verses, or even more from Proverbs? What other proverbs does he use, from the classical, or legal, or other worlds? What related species appear in a word-search, like maxim or saying or apothegm or sententia?

Readers can expand or alter their vision of Milton’s “best possession” as he called it, through the OSEO version. We look forward to learning what other people do do with it, be they nerds or number-crunchers, theologians or Miltonists.


View the Illustrations of the Manuscript (a free extract from The Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8: De Doctrina Christiana, Vol. 1) on OSEO now. This edition is part of the Restoration Prose module.

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