"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Who Produced Early Conciliar Acta and How?

I am endlessly fascinated by historiography, not least the exploration of how certain reputations in ecclesial history get traduced and trashed as "heretics." Yes, I'm thinking of Origen here, and derivatively of his ostensible follower Evagrius of Pontus (on whom, in this connection, the definitive "rehabilitation," as it were, has been written by Augustine Casiday. I interviewed him here about his book on Evagrius which everybody must read.) But we could ask such questions of every person of prominence, and especially of every council in ecclesial history--though it seems we rarely do ask such questions. 

As someone who has over the years often played secretary to various academic committees, I am only too aware of how one can shape the record for good or ill. I alert my colleagues to this problem by making them watch two clips of the invaluable and hilarious Yes, Prime Minister, as here and here

But we rarely--in my experience at least--pay sufficient and critical attention to the crucial question of who was involved in the writing of the minutes or acta of councils in the Church. How much credibility ought we give to such people if we can even find out who they were in some cases? How reliable is their record? How many machinations were going on behind the scene to make sure something was or was not on the agenda (and when!), did or did not get minuted, came up for discussion or was then decided or shelved, etc? 

Perhaps more rarely do we attend to the socioeconomic conditions in which councils were held and their records produced. (John O'Malley's great book on Vatican I, as I showed here, is a recent and prominent exception.)

If you read the uproarious diaries of Congar, as I did here, you get the low-down on all these things: committees that overran their time, leaving everyone hopping on one leg with full bladders; people furiously pulling levers behind the magic curtain to promote or forbid discussion of certain things, to get their favourite candidates onto drafting committees (or have their enemies on them silenced or evicted), and to ensure that their hands remain on the levers of power, not their enemies'. Other diaries, including those of Bouyer, even more shocking in some respects than Congar's, or of Hermaniuk's (much the tamer of the three), all show this. 

Every time I am doing a clinical intake with a patient, I am asking myself the question "How reliable an historian is this person" in telling me of, say, their childhood, or the violence they saw, or any other thing? For human memory is malleable and fallible, and that includes the memories of churchmen gathered in council. But too many Christians seem blithely unaware of these difficulties, and too anxious to press too far into inquiring about them. 

A new book, however, does not shy away from doing so but instead looks set to draw some welcome and overdue attention to this problem: The Acts of Early Church Councils Acts: Production and Character by Thomas Graumann (Oxford UP, 2021), 352pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

The Acts of Early Church Councils Acts examines the acts of ancient church councils as the objects of textual practices, in their editorial shaping, and in their material conditions. It traces the processes of their production, starting from the recording of spoken interventions during a meeting, to the preparation of minutes of individual sessions, to their collection into larger units, their storage and the earliest attempts at their dissemination.

Thomas Graumann demonstrates that the preparation of 'paperwork' is central for the bishops' self-presentation and the projection of prevailing conciliar ideologies. The councils' aspirations to legitimacy and authority before real and imagined audiences of the wider church and the empire, and for posterity, fundamentally reside in the relevant textual and bureaucratic processes. Council leaders and administrators also scrutinized and inspected documents and records of previous occasions. From the evidence of such examinations the volume further reconstructs the textual and physical characteristics of ancient conciliar documents and explores the criteria of their assessment. Reading strategies prompted by the features observed from material textual objects handled in council, and the opportunities and limits afforded by the techniques of 'writing-up' conciliar business are analysed. Papyrological evidence and contemporary legal regulations are used to contextualise these efforts. The book thus offers a unique assessment of the production processes, character and the material conditions of council acts that must be the foundation for any historical and theological research into the councils of the ancient church.

We are also given the table of contents: 

Abbreviations and Conventions


Part I: The Quest for Documentation

1. The Earliest Church Councils: A Documentary History

2. 'Council Acts' and the Variations of Conciliar Documentation and Recording Patterns

3. The Conference of Carthage (AD 411): An Imperial Model Case

Part II: 'Reading' and 'Using' Acts

4. Examining the Records: Two Inquiries into Eutyches' Trial (AD 449)

5. Original Acts and Documents at Chalcedon (451)

6. 'Authentic' Documents: Visual Features, Annotation, and Administrative Handling

7. Assessing and Performing Authenticity: A View from Later Councils

Part III: 'Writing' Acts: The Council's Secretariat in Action

8. All the President's Men: Administrative Aides and the 'Official' Secretariat

9. The Stenographic Protocol: Professionalism, Conventions, and Challenges

10. 'Transferring' Shorthand Notes to Long-hand Transcript

Part IV: The Written Record

11. The Hypomnemata: Production and Qualities

12. Documents Incorporated: Incorporating Documents

13. Abstracting and Summary Records

14. Collecting and Appending Signatures

15. The Structure and Elements of the 'Ideal' Session-record and the Role of 'Editing'

Part V: Files, Collections, Editions: Dossierization and Dissemination

16. Council Acts Gathered and Organised: Minutes, Case Files and Collected Records

17. Ancillary Documentation and the Beginnings of Dossierization

18. The Preparation of 'Editions' and the Dissemination of Documentation



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