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Welsh History Review


Vol. 15, nos. 1-4 1990-91

John of Wales. a study of the works and ideas of a Thirteenth-Century friar. Book review.

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popular books of the late middle ages. Indeed, it retained its popularity into the
Renaissance: Cosimo de' Medici, for instance, made sure that it, together with the
Breviloquium de virtutibus, was included in the Laurentian Library (p. 205).
The bulk of the book consists of a straightforward examination of the contents of
these four works in order to reconstruct John's own thought on the topics considered.
There is a problem here, in that these writings primarily consist of collected exempla
for use by preachers. As Dr. Swanson says on p. 65, 'Very few of the comments in
Communiloquium come originally from John of Wales. To attempt to reach one
man's mind through the words of others may seem futile.' Her contention is that John,
through the skilful and coherent management of these exempla, does reveal his own
ideas. The sheer number of exempla and the very wide range of authors, both ancient
and medieval, upon whom John draws are striking; but did he produce any new ideas
or was he just retailing conventional ones? It would appear that in three areas in
particular he had a distinctive contribution to make. In his extensive treatment of
politics, he adopted a very positive attitude towards the state and involvement in
political affairs and took the view that philosophers should not hold aloof from such
matters. Dr. Swanson persuasively invites us to consider part of the Communiloquium
as in effect a form of Fiirstenspiegel addressed to the general public. John also
approved of social mobility in relating nobility to individual virtue rather than to birth.
Further, he provided an important contribution to ideas about child-rearing by
standing out against the prevalent medieval advocacy of harshness in their upbringing.
For the period at which he wrote, John's prescriptions were a model of mildness.
Maybe he was mindful of the revulsion which Augustine, in his Confessions at least,
expressed at the cruel punishments children were made to suffer.
Dr. Swanson brings out very well one of the most striking aspects of John's work:
his respect for the writers of the ancient world. The Communiloquium, for instance,
contains 1,020 citations from authors before A.D.450, 796 biblical ones and 573 from
writers after A.D.450 (p. 163). Why is there this bias? On one level John can be seen
as part of a growing pre-humanist movement. Dr. Swanson suggests a deeper reason
which is certainly telling. John saw a profound connection between the friars' poverty
ethic and the simplicity of life and rejection of riches preached by so many of the
ancient philosophers. John had a 'passion' for spreading recognition of the virtues of
ancient philosophy, which he saw as having so much to teach thirteenth-century
Christians. He also admired republican Rome's tradition of frugality.
This book as a whole is meticulous and extremely thorough. A small amount of
repetitiveness, however, occurs at times. Dr. Swanson gives us a list of 453 MSS.
and 14 early printed editions (up to c. 1550) of John's works. She tells us that she
has primarily used the Venice, 1496, edition of the Breviloquium de virtutibus
(collated with two Oxford MSS.), and the Augsburg, 1475, edition of the
Communiloquium. She does not inform us of the editions or MSS. which she has
primarily used in her study of the Compendiloquium and the Breviloquium de
sapientia sanctorum; one is left to conjecture, on the basis of the checklist of editions
on p. 290, that it is again the Venice, 1496, edition in both cases. On p. 168 she uses
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