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Many Readers but Few Followers: The Fate of Nicholas of Lyra's “Apocalypse Commentary” in the Hands of His Late-Medieval Admirers

  • Philip Krey (a1)


“Use Auriol's Compendium as a mould, pour in Lyre, flavor with Augustine, and sprinkle with Grosseteste.” This was John Wyclif's (1330–1384) recipe for biblical commentary. It may be the nature of biblical commentary that commentators do not follow recipes closely, but the history of how the admirers of Nicholas of Lyra's Apocalypse Commentary (1329) received and reworked it indicates that Nicholas's work served frequently as the “mould” into which other interpretations were “poured,” while his own Augustinian seasonings were largely ignored. Although later commentators often adopted Nicholas's method, they more frequently poured in the ingredients of his younger Franciscan colleague, Peter Auriol (whose Apocalypse Commentary of 1319 Nicholas sharply critiqued), serving up a dish that Nicholas would not have enjoyed eating.



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1. See Smalley, Beryl, “Wycliffe's Postilla on the Old Testament and his Principium,” Oxford Studies Presented to Daniel Calls, Oxford Historical Society 8, vol. 16 (Oxford, U.K., 1964), p. 256.

2. The following sources are of primary importance for information about Lyra: Langlois, Charles, “Nicholas de Lyre, Frère Mineur,” Histoires Littéraire de la France 36 (1927): 356357;Rüthing, Heinrich, “Kritische Bemerkungen zu einer mittelalterlichen Biographie des Nikolaus von Lyra,” Archivum Franciscanum Historicum 60 (1967): 4254;Hailperin, Herman, Rashi and the Christian Scholars (Pittsburgh, 1963);Gosselin, Edward A., “Bibliographical Survey: A Listing of the Printed Editions of Nicolaus de Lyra,” Traditio 26 (1970): 399426;Reinhardt, Klaus, “Das Werk des Nikolaus von Lyra im Mittelalterlichen Spanien,” Traditio 43 (1987): 321358.

3. See McGinn, Bernard, “Revelation,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Alter, Robert and Kermode, Frank (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), p. 534.

4. Magnificent illustrations and initials decorate a number of the manuscripts, which are carefully and professionally done. In fact, a number of the identified manuscripts have no marginal notes in them at all and are in such excellent condition that one suspects they were acquired by prelates for their value and never used. There is a remarkable consistency in the manuscripts and printed editions, testifying to the efficiency of the Paris copying system and making it improbable that different manuscript traditions were responsible for the variety of uses to which his commentary was put.

5. See the excellent discussion by Froehlich, Karlfried of how Nicholas's works came into the printings of the Gloss in the “Introduction to the Facsimile Reprint of the Editio Princeps,” Biblia Latina Cum Glossa ordinaria, Adolph Rush of Strassburg 1480–1481 ed. Froehlich, Karlfried and Gibson, Margaret T. (Brepols-Turnhout, Belgium, 1992), p. 16.

6. See Froehlich, pp. 16, 17. Paul usually accurately summed up Nicholas's exegesis before he took issue with it in his few Additions on the Apocalypse. Mathias did not respond to Paul's comments on the Apocalypse.

7. “Haec enim Postilla, saltem in his partibus Hispaniae, et, ut credo, Galliae, communior est caeteris, circa Glossam ordinariam. Ad istam enim recurrunt non solum theologi, sed etiam juristae et alii intellectum sacrae Scripturae planum habere desiderantes.” Burgensis, Paul, Additio super utrumque prologum magistn Nicolai de Lyra (Patrologia Latina, 113:46).

8. Lyra always cloaked his criticism with one of two favorite phrases, “salvo meliori judicio videtur mihi,” (saving better judgment it seems to me) or “salva reverentia videtur,” (with all due respect, it seems) indicating that he was willing to subject himself to future, more correct opinions and also attempting something new.

9. This attribution of a tradition is not only modern, but also late medieval.

10. See Schmolinski, Sabine, Der Apokalypsenkommentar des Alexander Minorita: Zur frühen Rezeption Joachim von Fiore in Deutschland. Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Studien und Texte (Hannover, Germany, 1991).

11. See McGinn, p. 525.

12. See Lerner, Robert, “The Medieval Return to the Thousand-Year Sabbath,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, ed. Emerson, Richard K. and McGinn, Bernard (Ithaca, N.Y., 1992), p. 52.

13. Like most of the exegetes in the Middle Ages, Nicholas was familiar with Tyconius's seven rules of interpreting the Bible—the third was the method of recapitulation.

14. McGinn, p. 532.

15. See Burr, David, “Mendicant Readings of the Apocalypse,” in The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y., 1992), p. 94.

16. Burr, p. 98. The mendicants were not the first to use the Apocalypse to critique the Church; Hildegaard of Bingen among others had done this long before.

17. Joachim of Fiore also understood the Apocalypse to prophesy the whole of church history in a continuous fashion, but he used the method of recapitulation to interpret John's complex series of cycles such that each of the series recapitulates all of history while nevertheless progressing to the end as a whole. See McGinn, Bernard, The Calabrian Abbot: Joachim of Fiore in the History of Western Thought (New York, 1985), p. 147.

18. Lyra's version is the following in his comment on Rev. 4:1: “Et ostendam tibi quae oportet fieri cito: ‘Nam in spiritu sub quibusdam imaginibus vidit decursum ecclesiae ab Apostolorum tempore usque ad finem mundi, quantum ad tribulationes, consolationes, et mutabilitates notabiles: quarum tamen aliquae iam praecesserunt, et aliquae sunt futurae.’” “For in the spirit under certain images he saw the course of history from the time of the apostles to the end of the world, with respect to tribulations, consolations, and notable changes, of which some have already occurred and others are in the future” (Antwerp, 1634), col. 1495.

19. See Burr, p. 100.

20. Auriol writes about Rev. 20:5 concerning the first resurrection, “Legitur enim, quod tempore papae Innocentii III et imperatoris Frederici hos duos Sanctos tanquam duo luminaria Dominus destinavit, qui instituerent duas religiones, quarum doctrinis et exhortationibus, mentis et exemplis quasi tota christianitas videretur cum Christo surrexisse et respectu praecedentis temporis in novitate vitae ambulasse.” “It is found that at the time of Pope Innocent III and the Emperor Frederick that God elected two saints like two lamps, who instituted two religious orders, by whose teachings and exhortations, by whose merits and examples, it seemed as if all of Christianity had risen with Christ and with regard to the preceding period had walked in newness of life,” Compendium sensus litteralis totius sacrae Scripturae, ed. Seeboeck, Phillberto, OFM (Quaracchi, Italy, 1896), p. 547.

21. Alexander includes current events more than Peter does.

22. Alexander had continued his historical correlations even through chapter twenty-one and Peter up to twenty.

23. There is a mystery about Lyra's Augustinian perspectives introduced at chapter sixteen, which poses problems for the reception of the commentary. The fact that he did not take an Augustinian approach to the Bible and history from the start seemed to confuse his readers when he wanted to change course at the twelfth century.

24. There is significant evidence that he changed his own mind about some of the issues noted above and reworked his earlier version of chapters seventeen to twenty in the 1329 edition, leaving much of the earlier thought presented but retracted in the final work. His earlier and thorough classroom lectures seem to have been edited for publication.

25. It would be beyond the limits of this article to discuss Lyra's accolades and love for Charlemagne and the French monarchy, which was also part of his revision.

26. Commenting on Alexander's correlation of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21:9 with the Franciscans, Lyra notes: “Not all mendicants are immaculate, neither do all who enter persevere in the good, but many are apostates and scoundrels.” He makes a reference to a comment about monastics made by Augustine, “Just as he did not find any better than those who progressed in monasteries, so also he found none worse than those who were failures in monasteries” (Rev. 21:9, col. 1672).

27. Toledo, Biblioteca Pública de Toledo, Provincial 450, fols. 94–139: Exposilio super Apocalypsim compilata ex dictis doctorum authenticorum: Hieronymi, Augustini, Bedae, Haimoni, Autperti, Helinandi, Glossae Ordinariae, et Ricardi. See Stegmiiller, “Pontius Carbonelli, OFM,” MS RB 6985, 73. Incipit: “Apocalypsim Johannis apostoli, Jesu Christi, regis ac magistri cunctorum….” Explicit: “Et omnibus benivolus, nemini offensus ostendatur. Quam salutem in aeternum nobis per suam clementiam exhibeat salva noster Jesus Christus, Dei Filius, qui cum Patre etc.” This continuous commentary is modeled after Aquinas's Catena Aurea (Reinhardt, 342). I am indebted to Professor Reinhardt for permitting use of the otherwise unavailable microfilm of Poncio's Apocalypse Commentary in the Toledo MS and notices on it in Castaño, Vincente Manuel, Noticia y defensa de los escritos del venerable y sabio minorita Catálan Fray Poncio Carbonell (Alcalá, Spain, 1790), pp. 112123, nn. 29–37.

28. Reinhardt, pp. 321–358.

29. Glorieux, Palémon, “Discussiones: D'Alexandre de Hales à Pierre Auriol, La Suite des maitres Franciscains de Paris au XIIIe Siecle,” Archivum Franciscanum Historicum 26 (1933): 281.

30. It would be helpful to compare the Daniel commentaries, since Lyra also edited his own Daniel Commentary in 1329. See Reinhardt, p. 342.

31. He called this summary, Expositio brevis, vel Divisio Libri Apocalypsis (Ibid., p. 343). The comment on Peter's division of the Apocalypse is noted in Stegmüller, 6985: 73a for the same Toledo MS 450, fols. 139–141. Incipit: “In Libro Apocalypsis Johannis intendit unam conclusionem….” Explicit: “Divisio patere potest ex Bedae et Ricardi et aliorum doctorum dictis supra positis in eadem.” Another manuscript copy is in Barcelona, Biblioteca de Catalunya 545 (Dalmases 30), fols. 37–77; the Divisio, fols. 77–80.

32. “Incipit Expositio brevis, vel Divisio libri Apocalypsis. In Libro Apocalypsis Joannes intendit unam conclusionem, scilicet aperire decursum totius Ecclesiae quantum ad prosperitates, et adversitates notabiles, quae debebant illi contingere a sui fundatione usque in finem.” This is an exact citation from Peter's preface to the Apocalypse commentary (Compendium, p. 439). See also Castaño, , Noticia, p. 118.

33. Lyra, making his critical comments on the commentaries of Alexander and Peter, writes (Rev. 20:6): “Patet igitur qualiter haec littera a principio XVII capit. usque ad istum locum potest exponi, ut iam completa. Verumtamen haec expositio impropria videtur in pluribus et extorta.” “It is clear how this text from the beginning of chapter seventeen to this place is possible to be interpreted as already completed; nevertheless, this exposition seems improper and forced in may ways” (Antwerp 1634[6, col. 1661]; emphasis added). At the end of this long critique Lyra adds the often-cited words, “Propter haec et alia plura quae dici possent contra expositionem praedictam videtur salvo meliori judicio quod tota littera a principio XVII ca, usque ad locum istum nondum sit impleta. Et quia non propheta sum, nee filius prophetae, nolo de futuris aliquid dicere, nisi illud quod a scriptura sancta vel dictis sanctorum el doctorum authenticorum elici potest propter quod expositionem litterae dictae sapientioribus dimitto. Si vero circa hoc dominus dederit mihi intellectum, libenter aliis communicabo.” “On account of this and many other things which could be said against this interpretation, saving better judgment, it seems that the whole text from the beginning of chapter seventeen to this place is unfulfilled. Because ‘I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet’ (Amos 7:14), I will not say anything about the future, except what can be taken from the Scripture or the words of the saints and the established teachers. Therefore, I leave the interpretation of this to the wise. If the Lord were to grant me its understanding, I would be glad to share it with others” (Ibid., col. 1662; emphasis added).

34. Benrath, Gustav Adolf, Wyclifs Bibelkommentar (Berlin, 1966), p. 301.

35. “Conclusio quam intendit Johannes in hoc libro est instruere ecclesiam de omnibus prosperitatibus et adversitatibus notabilibus ab eius fundatione usque ad diem iudicii.” “In this book John intends to instruct the Church about all the notable successes and misfortunes from its foundation to the day of judgment.” MS. Bodley 716, f. 159 d. Also cited in Benrath, p. 301, note 826.

36. “Propter quod salvo meliori judicio magis videtur, quod fuerit alius a sancto Timotheo.” “Therefore, saving better judgment, it seems more likely that it was someone other than St. Timothy.” (Antwerp, col. 1473).

37. See Benrath, pp. 302–303.

38. “quod quidam intelligunt impletum ex hoc quod iste imperator in pricipio fuitdulcis et favorabilis Christianis, sed in fine fuit heresi depravatus et sic amarus fidei. Et potest intelligi melius quod leges civiles in principio profuerent legi Christi, sed postquam ecclesia anelavit circa temporalia et ecclesiastici qui sunt quasi venter corporis mistici tantum attenderunt ad illas dimissa lege Christi generabatur in ecclesia amariludo amarissima et ista est de dotacione ecclesie.” “This they understand to be fulfilled in that in the beginning this emperor was sweet and favorable to the Christians, but in the end he was corrupted by heresy and thus bitter to the faith. It is possible to be understood better that the civil laws benefitted the law of Christ in the beginning, but after the church panted for temporal things, and the clergy who are, as it were, the stomach of the mystical body attended only to these—the law of Christ having been abandoned—a most bitter bitterness was generated in the church, and this was as a result of the endowment of the church.” (Rev. 10:8) B 165 b (cited in Benrath, p. 305, n. 841.)

39. Wyclif: “The sixth angel is regarded as Pope Gregory who…excommunicated all those elected in the church, who accepted investiture by ring and staff from lay power, since at that time yet the emperors and kings usurped for themselves this power (usurparunt sibi hanc potestatem)” B 168. (Incorrectly cited in Benrath as Lyra. This is Auriol's language.) Peter, : “Since, however, previously the emperors, kings, and princes had usurped for themselves this power over the bishops and the prelates” (Compendium, p. 523). Lyra: “The sixth angel: Some expound this part with respect to Pope Gregory, who was first called Hildebrand and presided over the church at the time of Henry IV, who began to rule in the year of the Lord, 1057. A conflict arose between him and Pope Gregory, because Pope Gregory excommunicated all who were elected in the church, who accepted investiture by ring and staff from the hand of any layperson, since emperors and princes had still used this power (usi fuissent hoc polestate); thus they explain the text…. This can be expounded in another way and more properly according to the letter, as it seems, concerning Charlemagne.” (Rev. 16:12, col. 1627; emphasis added).

40. The English supported Urban VI and invaded Flanders in 1383 to crusade against the followers of antipope Clement VII. See Szittya, Penn, The Antifraternal Literature in the Middle Ages (Princeton, N.J., 1986), p. 161.

41. “Unde doctor de Lyra, licet novellus, tamen copiosus et ingeniosus postillator Scripture, ad literam.” De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, ed. Buddensieg, Rudolf (London 19051907, reprinted New York, 1966), 1:275.

42. Inconsistencies in previous exegetes can be explained by the fact that the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy may change from generation to generation. See Szittya, p. 175.

43. Sermo, XXII (Sermones Mixti IX), “Ecce ego Johannes vidi angelum ascendentem ab ortu solis.” Apoc. VII, 2, Iohannis Wyclif Sermones, ed. Loserth, Iohannis (London, 1890), pp. 188197. He treats Sermo XXI on Rev. 1:1–6 in a similar fasion, using Lyra's basic outline, but then launching into an attack on papal indulgences, in Loserth, p. 177.

44. He begins the sermon by recognizing that there is a certain relativity in assigning the significance of the figures in the Apocalypse. In other words, because the words of the Bible are eternal truths, more than one meaning can be found at different times and places. See Leff, Gordon, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages (New York, 1967), 2:511516.

45. Peter's complaint about the constant return to the theme of the Antichrist in recapitulative commentaries can be summarized thus: “quod in hoc libro prophetice sint praedictae omnes notabiles passiones, mutationes, persecutiones et novitates, quae circa universalem Ecclesiam contingunt, et non solum persecutio antichristi.” “Because in this book all the noteworthy sufferings, changes, persecutions, and new things, which have befallen the universal Church, are prophesied and not only the persecution of Antichrist” (Compendium, p. 456).

46. For Wyclif at this time, the Constantinian era is not as drastic a fall for the church as the fall at the time of Innocent III, when, among other issues, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the mendicant orders were approved. See Szittya, p. 164. See also Leff, pp. 516–546.

47. Anne Hudson notes that there are limited parallels between Wyclif's sermons on the Apocalypse and the Lollard text, the Opus Arduum, and its abridged version, the Commenlarius in Apocalypsin, which Luther had published in 1528 in Wittenberg. See Hudson, Anne, “A Neglected Wycliffite Text,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 29 (1978): 257279. The Opus Arduum was written in 1390 by an anonymous Lollard. To what extent these sermons influenced this work needs investigation. The author, a learned writer, was also aware of Lyra's Postilla Litteralis. If the author was aware of Lyra's Apocalypse Commentary, he does not show it. Like Wyclif, the Opus Arduum takes a short run through early church history and then immediately jumps to current events or what he calls “modern times,” the time of Antichrist. Actually this text may not belong in the historical-sequential tradition at all. I refer to it only because in the preface to this text Luther uses it to claim that the papacy had regularly been called the Antichrist long before his time. Luther also employs and adapts to his purposes the historical-sequential method in his 1530 commentary on the Apocalypse. He also takes an obligatory run through early church history and then jumps to what he really wants to address, namely, current events and the presence of the Antichrist in them.

48. The catalog entry in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel is “Bibel Niederdeutsch mit Glossen nach den Postillen des Nicolaus de Lyra. Lübeck: Steffan Arndes, 19. November, 1494.”

49. The title page of the Niederdeutsche Bibel announces that Lyra and other authorities are used as glosses; however, in the preface only Lyra's name is mentioned. This has occurred for two reasons: first, the Kölner Bibel used only Lyra and the preface of the Kölner Bibel was largely copied by the Niederdeutsche Bibel; second, Lyra's name was so dominant that the Niederdeutsche Bibel associated all the glosses with him.

50. Cited in Walther, Wilhelm, Die deutsche Bibelübersetzung des Mittelalters (Braunschweig, Germany, 18891892), col. 672.

51. Walther, col. 672.

52. See footnote 33 above.

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