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Dialogue in the Monastery: Hagiography as a Pedagogical Model

  • Lucy K. Pick (a1)


This article explores the reasons why dialogue has been such a key part of religious education by examining several texts from the medieval period: Gregory the Great's Dialogues, Petrus Alfonsi's Dialogue against the Jews and three hagiographical narratives from tenth-century Spanish manuscripts. It will argue that when read or listened to, the dialogue of the text was meant in turn to cue an internal dialogue, a response within the self, and a transformation. While meditative religious reading of all kinds was thought of as producing this inner reflection and debate, the dialogue format was an especially effective didactic tool for inculcating in beginners a mode of internal reflection and questioning, inspired by an outside source. Finally, although the content and even the message of the dialogue that is written or overheard may be fixed and clear, its effect on those who read or hear it remains open and provisional. It is up to readers or listeners to draw their own conclusions and absorb their own lessons from it.


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1 The most important recent work on dialogue and disputation as pedagogy in the Middle Ages is Novikoff, Alex J., The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice, and Performance (Philadelphia, PA, 2013). See also de Beaulieu, Marie Anne Polo, ed., Formes dialoguées dans la littérature exemplaire du moyen âge (Paris, 2012); Goldhill, Simon, ed., The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2008); Lerer, Seth, Boethius and Dialogue: Literary Method in the Consolation of Philosophy (Princeton, NJ, 1985).

2 Ann Elizabeth Kuzdale, ‘The Dialogues of Pope Gregory the Great in the Literary and Religious Culture of Seventh- and Eighth-Century Europe’ (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 1995), 79–178. Kuzdale estimates that there were at least 79 known partial or complete manuscripts of the Dialogues between the seventh and tenth centuries: personal communication, 22 September 2017.

3 Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Prol. 7 (SC 251, 260, 265; 1: 14).

4 Ibid. 8 (2: 164, 166). Translations into English are my own, except where noted.

5 The bibliography on this subject is vast, but see, for example, Blumenkranz, Bernhard, Les Auteurs chrétiens latins du moyen âge sur les juifs et le judaïsme, Études juives (Paris, 1963); Funkenstein, Amos, ‘Basic Types of Christian Anti-Jewish Polemics in the Later Middle Ages’, Viator 2 (1971), 373–82; Cohen, Jeremy, The Friars and the Jews: The Evolution of Medieval Anti-Judaism (Ithaca, NY, 1982); Chazan, Robert, Daggers of Faith: Thirteenth-Century Christian Missionizing and Jewish Response (Berkeley, CA, 1989); Dahan, Gilbert, Les Intellectuels chrétiens et les juifs au moyen âge (Paris, 1990); Krauss, Samuel, The Jewish-Christian Controversy from the Earliest Times to 1789 (Tübingen, 1996); Novikoff, Medieval Culture of Disputation, 172–221.

6 Tolan, John, Petrus Alfonsi and his Medieval Readers (Gainesville, FL, 1993), 911, 183.

7 Alfonsi, Petrus, Diálogo contra los judíos, ed. Mieth, Klaus-Peter, transl. Ducay, Esperanza, Larumbe 9 (Huesca, 1996); idem, Dialogue against the Jews, transl. Irven M. Resnick, FOTC Medieval Continuation 8 (Washington DC, 2006). On the role played by Moses, see Anna Sapir Abulafia, ‘Moyses in Service of Petrus in Petrus Alfonsi's Dialogus’, in Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann and Philipp Roelli, eds, Petrus Alfonsi and his Dialogus: Background, Context, Reception, Micrologus’ Library 66 (Florence, 2014), 111–28, at 114, 117–24.

8 Cohen, Jeremy, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (Berkeley, CA, 1999), 3 n. 3.

9 Petrus Alfonsi, Diálogo 1.16–23.

10 Ibid., Prol. 7.

11 Tolan, Petrus Alfonsi, 166–7, 175 (Tolan's translation).

12 BN, nov. acq. lat., MS 2178, fol. 207r; and BAH, MS 13, fol. 287v have separate tables of contents which list them together as a collection within the larger manuscript.

13 Two of the four manuscripts (El Escorial, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo, MS a.II.9 and BN, nouv. acq. lat. MS 2178) copy the full collection of eight lives, while the other three (El Escorial, MS a.I.13; BNE, MS 10007; BAH, MS 13) transcribe different subsections of the collection: Burrus, Virginia and Conti, Marco, eds, The Life of Saint Helia, OECT (Oxford, 2013), 69. Salisbury, Joyce E., Church Fathers, Independent Virgins (London, 1991), begins the work of considering them as a collection, discussing the contents of the eight lives, with a consideration of the manuscript tradition on pp. 129–33. Antolín, Guillermo, ‘Estudios de códices visigodos. Códice a.II.9 de la Biblioteca del Escorial’, Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia 54 (1909), 5567, 117–28, 204–46, 265–315, discusses El Escorial, MS a.II.9 in detail and provides partial transcriptions.

14 Many manuscripts of Gregory the Great's Dialogues use character cues (praenotatio nominum) in the same way: Bruno Judic, ‘Le recueil fondateur. Les Dialogues de Gregoire le Grand’, in Polo de Beaulieu, ed., Formes dialoguées, 69–87, at 80–2.

15 See the excellent edition by Burrus and Conti, Life of Helia, 76–173. I use their translation in what follows.

16 Ibid. 86–7.

17 Ibid. 134–5.

18 Ibid. 132–3.

19 Ibid. 84–5. The Life has ordinem where the Vulgate has virum.

20 Ibid. 76–9.

21 Ibid. 80–1.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid. 172–3.

24 The text is transcribed from El Escorial, MS a.II.9, fol. 116, in Antolín, ‘Códices visigodos’, 279–82.

25 Ibid. 279.

26 Ibid. 282.

27 Verba seniorum 1.15 (PL 73, cols 995C–998A).

28 Some of these can be identified by searching for the incipit in ‘Monastica’, online at: <>.

29 Verba seniorum 1.15 (PL 73, cols 995C–D).

30 Antolín, ‘Códices visigodos’, 279.

31 Passio S. Agnetis, ActaSS Ian. 2, 351–4; Jones, Hannah, ‘Agnes and Constantia: Domesticity and Cult in the Passion of Agnes’, in Cooper, Kate and Hillner, Julie, eds, Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome 300–900 (Cambridge, 2007), 115–39, at 115–20.

32 ActaSS Iun. 5, 37–9, 159–61; Jones, ‘Agnes and Constantia’, 118–19; Conrad Leyser, ‘“A Church in the House of the Saints”: Property and Power in the Passion of John and Paul’, in Cooper and Hillner, eds, Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage, 140–62, at 147–52.

33 Aldhelm, Carmen de virginitate, lines 1927–74, 2051–2120, in Opera Omnia, MGH AA 15, 432–4, 437–40; Andrew Breeze, ‘The Transmission of Aldhelm's Writings in Early Medieval Spain’, Anglo-Saxon Studies 21 (1972), 5–20, at 9–10.

34 El Escorial, MS a.II.9, fols 59r–72r; ibid., MS a.I.13, fols 109v–125v; BAH, MS 13, fols 288r–293v; BN, nouv. acq. lat., MS 2178, fols 207r–219v.

35 El Escorial, MS a.I.13, fol. 111r.

36 For example, ‘Ad edificationem uirginum christi conscribimus ut ex paucis multa noscuntur’: ibid., fol. 110r; ‘Set reuertamur ad Constantinam augustam ut tu, uirgo christi, que studio edificationis tuȩ lectionis huius hystoriam discis’: ibid., fol. 111v.

37 Ibid., fols 112rv.

38 Ibid., fol. 112r; Burrus and Conti, Life of Helia, 110–15.

39 El Escorial, MS a.I.13, fol. 113v.

40 Methodius of Olympus, The Symposium: A Treatise on Chastity, ACW 27 (Westminster, MD, 1958), 38–162; König, Jason P., ‘Sympotic Dialogue in the First to Fifth Centuries CE’, in Goldhill, Simon, ed., The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2008), 85113, at 85, 102–6.

41 Methodius, Symposium, 184 n. 3.

42 ‘Illut autem quid significat quod dominus ad Moysen loquitur dicens: Si quis abierit cum amico suo simpliciter ad silbam ad ligna cedenda et lignum securis in manu fuerit, ferrumque lapsum de manubrio amicum eius percusserit et occiderit, hic ad unum supradictum urbem fugiat et uibat ne forte proximus cuius effusus est sanguis, doloris stimulo, persequatur et adpreendat eum et occidat anima eius. (Deut. 19: 5) Ad silbum quippe cum amico imus, cotiens ad intuenta subditorum delicta conuertimur. Et ligna simpliciter cedimus cum delinquentium uitia pia intemtione resecamus. Set securis manum fugit quam sese correptio plus quam ne[ce]sse est in asperitatem protrayt; ferrumque lapsum de manubrio prosilit, cum de correptione sermo durior exit. Et amicum eius percutiens occidit qui auditorem suum prolata contumelia ab spiritu dilectionis interficit. Set his que amicum suum percutiens occidit, ad tres necesse est ut urbes confugiat ut sub una earum uiuat quia, si quis ad penitentiam conuersus in unitate sacramenti sub spe fide et caritate absconditur, reus perpetrati omicidii non tenetur. Quem extincti proximus cum inuenerit non occidet quia, cum districtus iudex aduenerit qui sese nobis per natura consortium iunxit, ab eo procul dubio culpe reatum non expetit, que sub eius ueniam, spes, fides, et caritas abscondit’: El Escorial, MS a.I.13, fol. 109v; Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule 2.10 (SC 381–2, 2: 250, 252).

43 Stock, Brian, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 13, 14–18; Dagenais, John, The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture: Glossing the Libro de Buen Amor (Princeton, NJ, 1994), xvii, 68, 15–16, 21; Carruthers, Mary, The Craft of Thought (Cambridge, 1998), 35, 107–12.

44 On Augustine and the stages of transformation through reading, see Stock, Augustine the Reader, 199–200.

45 The topic of nuns and drama needs further attention, but see, for example, Normington, Katie, Medieval English Drama (Cambridge, 2009), 2631; Weaver, Elissa B., Convent Theatre in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge, 2002), 4995; and the work of the Medieval Convent Drama Project at the University of Fribourg, online at: <>.

46 Agius of Corvey, Dialogus (MGH Poetae 3, 369–88).

47 Hrotsvit, Agnes, in Opera Omnia, ed. Walter Bershin (Munich, 2001), 114–30.

48 Hrotsvit, Gallicanus, in Opera Omnia, ed. Bershin, 136–63. Chance, Jane, Literary Subversions of Medieval Women (New York, 2007), 23–8, argues that Hrotsvit may have known of the stories of Agnes and Constantina either directly or indirectly through Ælfric's Old English Lives of the Saints, but because of their relative dates and because Ælfric's work was in Old English, if Hrotsvit had an Anglo-Saxon inspiration it was more likely to have been Aldhelm, De virginitate.

49 Hrotsvit, Pelagius, in Opera Omnia, ed. Bershin, 63–77.

50 Burrus and Conti, Life of Helia, 15–28.

51 Salisbury, Independent Virgins, 129–30.


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