“Summa contra gentiles” and its Readers

UTS Manuscripts Student Series Post 2 of 4, by Valerie Wilson (MA candidate, Medieval and Renaissance Studies)*

The script of the Burke Library’s UTS MS 005, a manuscript of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa contra gentiles within the Burke’s Van Ess Collection, is one of its most baffling features. The manuscript comes from the Benedictine monastery of St. Vitus at Gladbach, which is in Mönchengladbach, a village near Düsseldorf. It is composed of 150 folios, and was rebound in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Although according to sources like Digital Scriptorium, the manuscript was apparently made in the thirteenth century, the script looks later than that. It an advanced Gothic book hand that has the characteristic pointiness of German Gothic, but is too advanced for the thirteenth century in that location. German scripts tended to lag behind the more southern regions of Europe in script-development; you might have seen a Gothic book hand this advanced in Italy in the thirteenth century, but it would have been rounder. This script therefore poses an important problem in the manuscript’s date—is it from the thirteenth century, or later?

A folio from UTS MS 005, a manuscript of Thomas Aquinas's "Summa contra gentiles." From the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.
A folio from UTS MS 005, a manuscript of Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa contra gentiles.” From the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

I believe the answer to this question lies in its marginal notes, or lack thereof. To fully dive into this, we first need to establish some context. Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa contra gentiles in the mid-thirteenth century, after he had completed a teaching residency at Cologne, which is just down the Rhine River from Düsseldorf. It contains philosophical arguments designed to logically prove the correctness of Christianity in debates and arguments with non-Christians. Aquinas died in 1274, so if this manuscript was indeed created in the thirteenth century, it would have been roughly contemporary with Aquinas’s life. If this was current scholarship with a local connection, why are there no contemporary notes in it?

In the thirteenth century, the University of Paris was on the cutting edge of the Western European intellectual community. This, of course, meant to many Church officials that it was also a potential breeding ground for heresy. In 1270, the bishop of Paris, Stephen Tempier, issued a list of condemned ideas that were derived from the University of Paris’s own faculty [Wippel 171–172]. This was part of the larger intellectual war between the Neo-Platonists, whose arguments were drawn from pagan philosophers, and the Neo-Augustinians, who were against pagan sources [Wippel 174, 184]. Thomas himself had developed a new form of Aristotelianism called Thomism, and although he himself was not condemned in 1270, this did put a target on his back [Wippel 175, 182]. Aquinas left Paris in 1272, two years before his death, and after his departure the Neo-Augustinians grew stronger [Wippel 184]. Three years after Aquinas’s death, Tempier issued another set of condemnations, many of which directly attacked Aquinas’s ideas [Wippel 195­–196]. Tempier even started a separate investigation of Aquinas, although it obviously never led to a conviction of heresy [Thijssen 72, 98]. Nevertheless, these condemnations marked an intellectual turn against Neo-Platonism, and stunted Thomism’s growth [Robiglio 52, Wippel 199].

If the manuscript was finished sometime between the Condemnations of 1277 and Aquinas’s canonization in 1323, it might have simply been put away for fear of potential heresy. These dates also agree with the manuscript’s script; if it were written in the very late thirteenth or the early fourteenth century, that could explain the script’s level of development. But what of the rest of the manuscript’s life? This manuscript had a reader who made a lot of marginal notes in the form of symbols, manicules, and occasionally words. I believe he was probably working around the time the book was rebound, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. This is because the words in his marginal notes look to be in a Humanist hand, which is a Renaissance script.

A folio from UTS MS 005, a manuscript of Thomas Aquinas's "Summa contra gentiles." From the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.
Marginalia in a folio from UTS MS 005, a manuscript of Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa contra gentiles.” From the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

I lean more strongly toward a sixteenth-century date because the reader would have had an incentive to find ways to philosophically argue against non-Catholics: the rise of Protestantism in Germany. I also believe that he was a sixteenth-century reader based on the width and softness of the lead in which he makes his notes. They look like they were made with something close to a modern pencil, instead of the thinner leadpoint stylus used to rule the manuscript’s margins. This would mean the notes date to the mid-sixteenth century, after the invention of the pencil. This puts the reader in the geographic and chronological epicenter of the Reformation, which is really exciting! Most importantly, this reader helps us determine that this manuscript was a living, breathing document. I feel lucky to have participated in its history, too! -VW


*Valerie Wilson is currently working toward her Master’s degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Columbia University. She is interested in all things medieval, but especially textual transmission and book culture.

The UTS Manuscripts Student Series highlights Blog posts by students who undertook in-depth studies of manuscripts held at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, in the Columbia masters-level seminar “The Medieval Book as Material Culture” (taught by Prof. Alison Beach) in the Fall of 2018. Their compositions will be posted on the Burke Blog throughout the Spring and Summer of 2019.




Robiglio, Andrea A. “Breaking the Great Chain of Being. A note on the Paris Condemnations of 1277, Thomas Aquinas and the Proper Subject of Metaphysics.” Verbum 4, no. 1 (2004): 51–59.

Thijssen, J.M.M.H. “1277 Revisited: A New Interpretation of the Doctrinal Investigations of Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome.” Vivarium 35, no. 1 (1997): 72-101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41963590.

Wippel, John. “The Condemnations of 1270 and 1277 at Paris.” Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 no. 2 (1977): 169–201.

Britannica Academic, s.v. “Mönchengladbach.” URL: https://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/M%C3%B6nchengladbach/53322.




Library: Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary, New York, New York.

Shelfmark: UTS MS 005

Collection: Van Ess

Date: 13th century according to Digital Scriptorium, possibly 14th century

Location: Benedictine monastery of St. Vitus, Gladbach, Mönchengladbach

Number of folios: 150

Gregory’s Rule: Highly likely

Gatherings: Unable to determine because of tight binding

Binding: 15th or 16th century

Ink color: Black

Pigment colors: Blue and Red

Script: Late Gothic bookhand

Headings: Book headings on each set of facing pages (i.e., Liber III)

Catchwords: Yes, occasionally, in text boxes

Parchment quality: Fairly white and uniform, lots of holes and stitching-repairs made before any writing was done. Some bookworm holes, especially on outer leaves.

Prickings: Yes, but pages are partially cut, so some are not visible.

Ruling: Yes, in leadpoint. Ruled in two columns.

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