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Primary Sources on the Life of Thomas Aquinas

By   /  June 24, 2015  /  Comments Off on Primary Sources on the Life of Thomas Aquinas

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I read somewhere that Thomas Aquinas was so large that a half moon shape was cut into the dinner table so he could get close enough to his food to eat it. Of course that’s not where he got the name “dumb ox.” Some time during seminary someone introduced me to Aquinas with the story that he was slow in school and always asking questions. His fellow students said he was “a dumb ox” to which he supposedly replied “yes but I understand every page I ever read.”

And then there’s my favorite story from the end of his life, how he experienced a vision of God so powerful that he stopped writing and declared all he had written “so much straw.”

Over the years I’ve pulled these little gems out to introduce others to Aquinas or in order to illustrate some good point in a conversation. In fact I’m not sure where I first heard my account of how he got his name but I’m pretty sure its a conflation of two different stories of his life. This week I began reading GK Chesterton’s highly praised biography of Aquinas (Here’s a link to a cheap kindle edition.). Chesterton emphasizes that his is not a scholarly treatment of Thomas so I wasn’t expecting that. But I was expecting a note somewhere, at the bottom of the page or in an appendix, telling me how Chesterton knew what he knew about details of his life. I was disappointed.

I decided to look up the primary sources on Thomas Aquinas and was completely surprised that the primary documents for Aquinas’s life are not available in English in the public domain. Its quite shocking really. If I am not mistaken, English translations of these primary documents do not appear until the middle of the twentieth century. If my preliminary search is true this speaks volumes to his perceived role in the English speaking world up to the twentieth century.

  • Biographical pages about Aquinas on the Internet? Tons
  • Biographical pages about Aquinas on the Internet that list their sources? Rare. Thats not unusual really. Folks on the Internet rarely feel compelled to list their sources.

Two websites Newadvent and catholic.org have the same entry from the Catholic Encylopedia (Kennedy, Daniel. “St. Thomas Aquinas.” Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912). Kennedy has only this to say about biographical sources:

Death prevented Henry Denifle from executing his project of writing a critical life of the saint. Denifle’s friend and pupil, Dominic Prümmer, O.P., professor of theology in the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, took up the work and published the “Fontes Vitae S. Thomae Aquinatis, notis historicis et criticis illustrati”; and the first fascicle (Toulouse, 1911) has appeared, giving the life of St. Thomas by Peter Calo (1300) now published for the first time.

Prümmer is available at archive.org in Latin. My Latin is not what it should but Prümmer mentions three names in his prologue that keep appearing on the web in my search for sources: Petro Calo, Guillelmo de Tocco and Bernardo Guidonis.

By the way, the letters “O.P.” next to someone’s name stand for “Order of the Preachers” and means that person is a Dominican monk, as Thomas was. In a similiar fashion (and if you didn’t know “S.J.” stands for “Society of Jesus” and means the person is a Jesuit). This points to Prümmer’s motivation for compiling a critical edition of the sources in Latin.

Foster, Kenelm, The life of Saint Thomas Aquinas: biographical documents, London, 1959
An English translation of the Latin sources on which most biographies are based, with an introduction by the translator.

One description of the book says this book is an English translation of “selections” of the three sources I discussed above. I haven’t yet finish my research on the Aquinas’ Life. I’m trying to lay my hands on a copy of The life of Saint Thomas Aquinas: biographical documents edited by Kenelm Foster (Longmans 1959). When I do I’ll update let you know.


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