Tertullian in the Renaissance :
The rediscovery of his work in the 15th century1


During the dark ages, Tertullian was little read.   Almost all the citations that may be found in the Patrologia Latina have been shown to be derived at second hand from Jerome or Eusebius2.   Possibly the appearance of his works in the Decretum Gelasianum under apocrypha was a factor.  However it is perhaps more likely that the content of Tertullian's works was obsolete, dealing as it did with forgotten heresies, or else with issues which were handled in more depth, with more authority  and in easier Latin by later writers.  Either way, he remained only a name to all but a few such as the Spaniard Agobard of Lyons or Hrabanus Maurus of Fulda3.

In the middle ages, the situation was little better, and it is mainly the existence of manuscripts that gives much indication of the extent of circulation.

With the renaissance came the urge to rediscover the writers of antiquity, Christian as well as pagan.   Bibliophiles scoured the monastic libraries of Italy, Germany, France and England, searching for works by once-famous authors who had been forgotten.  Nor were they disappointed.  Central to the search were the group of people known as the Florentine humanists, including the book-collector Niccolò Niccoli, the Papal Secretary Poggio Bracciolini, and their associates.  Acting as a go-between was the monk of San Marco, Ambrogio Traversari.  The letters among these people tell us something of what was going on.    The rediscovery of the works of Tertullian begins at the start of the 15th century.

The Apologeticum became known in some circles earlier than the other works.  Richard of Bury mentions it in his Philobiblon, written in 1344, and as he was Bishop of Durham it is perhaps not too fanciful to see a reference to the MS in the Durham catalogue.  Amplonius Ratinck gave a volume of the works of Lactantius, together with the Apologeticum, to the new university of Erfurt in 1402.   Dominici read it in 14054.  Nicholas of Clamanges saw 'aliquot volumina' which probably relate to other works5.    Poggio may have visited Cluny in 1415, obtaining an ancient Cicero6, but there is no mention of a Tertullian there in his letters until much later.

An important factor in the rediscovery of classical and patristic manuscripts was the Council of Constance (1414-1418).  This had been called to sort out the mess of popes and anti-popes plaguing the church at that time.  Naturally all the ecclesiastical authorities were present or represented.  But the proximity of the libraries of lower Germany was very tempting to the Christian humanists, as was the presence of so many prelates who could authorise access to those libraries.

In the summer of 1416 Poggio visited St. Gall together with Bartholomeus Montepolitianus and Cencius Romanus.  An extant letter from the latter to Francisco de' Fiana records the many classical works found in and around the town, more or less neglected7.  In January 1417 he returned to look for more with Traversari and Bartholomeus8.  Other monasteries besides St. Gall were also visited9.   A Tertullian was located.  A letter from Franciscus Barbarus to Poggio dated 6th July 1417 tells us that Poggio had sent him "a list of those books which by your effort and diligence you have recovered for us and for posterity" despite the "storms of winter" and the snow. "You and your helpful companion Bartholomeus have endowed Tertullian with life,  and M. Fabius Quintillian, Q. Asconius Pedianus, Lucretius, Silius Italicus, Marcellinus, Manilius the astronomer, Lucius Septimius, Valerius Flaccus; you have revived the grammarians Caprus, Eutychius, and Probus, and many others who had suffered a like fate, or you had brought them back to Latium after a long absence"10.  What this volume of Tertullian contained, we do not know, nor whether it was at St.Gall - the Ammianus Marcellinus was at Fulda - nor whether Poggio succeeded in bringing it away.   However it has been taken simply as a reference to the Codex Fuldensis of the Apologeticum and Adversus Iudaeos.

Poggio visited Cologne in 142211 but does not seem to have acquired any knowledge of the Cologne codex of the Corbie collection, which is not mentioned in the list of Cologne MSS in Niccolò Niccoli's Commentarium - a list of desiderata.

In 1424 Niccolò Nicholi acquired a copy of the Apologeticum, which Traversari copied.  After receiving the Apologeticum to copy, Traversari wrote to Niccoli "Cum ardore maximo et studio continuo leger incepi; occurritque vera de illo viro a maioribus lata sententia, quod scilicet in loquendo sit"12.

Niccolò also sought works by Tertullian from other sources13.   In a letter to Niccolò Niccoli from Rome dated 28th September1425 Poggio tells him that there is a volume of Tertullian at Cluny: "A man from the  monastery at Cluny will leave the Curia very shortly; he has become a friend of mine through my own efforts and promised to take care to have the Tertullian copied and undertook to do it.  I have high hopes that he will do something because he needs my help; still he is a monk but he does not seem in the least bit bad; he has some education and knows the book."14

The next activity involved an outsider ---- Cardinal Giordano Orsini15.   In 1426 two Franciscans wrote a volume of collected works of Tertullian, containing 27 works, at Pforzheim, for Cardinal Orsini, the patron of their order, and no doubt at his request.  This volume did not contain the Apologeticum, as it was an example of the beta-branch of the Cluny family. The MS is still extant (F: Conv. Soppr. VI 10), and the explicits of each scribe give this information16.

Orsini's agent in Germany was St. Nicholas of Cusa, referred to under a variety of names (Nicholas Krebs, Nicholas Trevirensis, Niccolò Cusano, etc).  In September 1427 Cusanus was in Rome, where he was given information about various manuscripts.  He then left for Germany.  He returned in December 1429 with a volume of Plautus containing 12 new comedies.  There is no mention of the volume of Tertullian in the letters of Poggio, but it may well have been brought to Rome at the same time by Cusanus 17.

In 1431 Lorenzo de' Medici came to Rome with his court to render homage to the newly elected pope Eugenius IV and obtained from the reluctant Cardinal his Plautus MS and also the Tertullian Ms (F)18.   Traversari gives us details of this Ms in his letters19.  When the MSS reached Florence, they were both copied by Niccolò Nicholi in his own hand.  The copies are extant (the Tertullian is conv. Soppr VI 11), although the Tertullian may have been copied first, probably by Traversari, as Niccolo's copy is not directly from F.   In 1432 the cardinal asked for the return of his MSS20.   The Plautus was returned, but the Cardinal never recovered his Tertullian.  On Niccolò's death it went with his books to the Abbey of San Marco, and from there to the Laurentian library in Florence where it is today.

In a letter to Niccolò Niccoli dated July 8, 1431, Traversari mentions an inventory of manuscripts which the former had given to the Cardinals Giuliano Cesarini and Niccolò Albergati (appointed papal legates to Germany and France respectively in 1431), with the request that they search for the volumes listed therein in their travels through Germany and France respectively21.  A copy of the inventory for Germany given to Cesarini was rediscovered recently22 and mentions the Fulda manuscript of the Apologeticum, although as we know it was not in fact collated until 1584 by Modius23.

In 1433 Albergati's secretary Thomas Parentucelli, who had some reputation as a manuscript-hunter, located in Germany (!) 'tucte le opere' in two volumes24, and this MS, in a transalpine hand, was also brought to Niccolò and is also extant (N: Conv. Soppr VI 9).  This MS -- an example of the alpha branch of the corpus Cluniacense did contain the Apologeticum25.  From the two MSS an extensive number of copies were made which are today extant in Italian libraries.  It is today possible to say when and for whom most of them were made, and so see that copies of the works of Tertullian formed part of patristic collections in the programmes of library-foundation in that period, such as the Badia of Fiesole, the library of the Medicis, that of the Dukes of Urbino, that of Aragon at Naples, and those of Popes Eugenius IV and Nicholas V.29 There was even a scribe in Florence who specialised in copies of Tertullian, writing Vat. Lat. 189, 192, 193, which form a complete collection, plus the two volumes of an incomplete set, the Budapest Bibl. Univ. 10 (Adv. Marc.) and the British Library Add. 16901 (6 treatises).29

There is no evidence of further discoveries during the 15th century.   It is interesting that the connection between Plautus and Tertullian persisted.   Giorgio Merula, who edited the first printed edition of the works of Plautus in 14XX, also owned a mutilated copy of the Apologeticum26.    It is impossible to say whether the rare Corbie collection of Tertullian's works was widely known, although there was a copy at Cologne and that library was visited by several of the humanists.  No copies, humanist or otherwise, exist of that collection, so it must be presumed to have remained obscure.  However it was known to Trithemius in 1494, but he evidently had no copy of it when writing De scriptoribus ecclesiasticis27.

Politian cites Tertullian a dozen times in the first Miscellaneorum centuria, and was influenced by his style.  His pupil and the first editor of the Miscellanea, Tristano Calco, was enthralled by the works of Tertullian and wrote to Politian on 31st December 1489 for help in completing his own copy of the Apologeticum, as the exemplar he had stopped just before the end at 50:12.  Politian wrote back on 12th January 1490 with a list, and lent him his own Apologeticum to complete the work (now BL Addit. 21187).  Calco returned the copy, today lost, with some corrections on it.  Politian's principal disciple, Pietro Crinito, in his De honesta disciplina, used various works of Tertullian profusely 29.

The remaining discoveries belong to the following century, and the scholarly work of Rhenanus and his successors as editors of the complete works of Tertullian.  By the end of the 15th century only the Apologeticum had been printed, at some date before 1493, by Bernardino Benalio at Venice28, and by Ulrich Scinzenzeler at Milan in 1494.


1.  The story of the rediscovery of the works of Tertullian has yet to be written, as far as I am aware.  While there are a number of handbooks on the rediscovery of the classics, these tend only to refer occasionally to patristic authors.  Consequently the details given in this article must be regarded with caution.  For general handbooks and more on the references please refer to the bibliography.  Postscript: These notes were written in 1999.  In 2004 there appeared the seminal article by Pierre Petitmengin (#29). This renders this page obsolete, and it will therefore be revised when time permits.

2. Lehmann, Paul, Tertullian im Mittelalter, Hermes 87 (1959), pp.231-246.  Checked.

3. Agobard's interest is shown by the existence of the Codex Agobardinus, while Hrabanus knows of the lost work De Spe Fidelium. Checked.

4. Sabbadini, Scoperte, p.255, gives a number of references.  See Richard of Bury (Sabbadini vol.II, p.8), Amplonio (Sabbadini vol.II, p.15), Dominici (Sabbadini vol.II, p.177).

5.  Discussed in Sabbadini vol.II, p.80. (from Sabbadini p.255)

6.  Apparently the visit is dubious.   Mentioned in Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars. Checked.

7.  Gordan, P.W.G, Two Renaissance Book Hunters : the letters of Poggius Bracciolini to Nicholaus de Niccolis : translated from the Latin and annotated, Columbia University Press, New York and London (1974). Appendix 1, p.188. Checked.

8. Sabbadini, Scoperte, p.79 gives a reference to Traversari epistolae p.984, which is odd as this work has column numbers rather than page numbers.  I can't check the Traversari.   Otherwise checked.  Two letters which do relate to Traversari and Tertullian are online; Book 2, ep. 8; and book 2, ep. 9.

9. Sabbadini,  Scoperte, p.79, n.34 gives references on which monasteries may have been visited - possibly Reichenau, Weingarten, Einsiedeln.

10. Gordan, P.W.G, Two Renaissance Book Hunters : the letters of Poggius Braccionlini to Nicholaus de Niccolis : translated from the Latin and annotated, Columbia University Press, New York and London (1974). Appendix 1, p.196-7, (checked) from Francisci Barbari et aliorum ad ipsum Epistolae, Brescia, 1743, p.2.

11. Stadter, Philip A., Niccolò Nicholi: Winning back the knowledge of the ancients, Vestigia - Studi in onore di Giuseppe Billanovich II (1984), p.752 n.19.  checked.

12.   Traversari, Epistol. VIII 5 of 1423; VIII, 3; VIII, 10 of 1424.  Not checked - this information from Sabbadini.

13.  According to Sabbadini, Niccolò was hoping for works from Cluny, and a little later, T. Ugoleto, whatever this means (ref. Prato, A. del, Librai e bibliotheche parmensi del sec XV, Parma 1905, p.40.  (Sabbadini p.80, 255).   I need to get the prato ref and try and make sense of this.

14. Gordan, P.W.G, Two Renaissance Book Hunters, letter LVIII.   checked.

15.  (Q-Was he papal legate in Germany in 1425, with Cusano as his secretary?   What is the relation between the two? (from Sabbadini/Gordan?) To be supplied.

16.  For details of the MS, see elsewhere on this site.

17.  Sabbadini, Scoperte, pp.111-2 (checked) quotes Poggio, Epist. vol.I, pp.208, 211, 213 on Cusano's activities.

18. Sabbadini p.111 n.21(checked) gives a reference of Traversari ep. vol VIII, 37, dated June 23 1431; Ullman, B and Stadter, P.,The public library of Renaissance Florence, Padua 1972, p.102 (checked).

19.  The list of works is the same as the extant MS.

20.  Traversari, epist. vol VIII, letter 41.(checked)Cardinal Vrsinus Plautum suum, & Tertullianum recipere cupit - Cardinal Orsini desires to regain his Plautus and Tertullianus.

21.  Ambrosii Traversarii, Latinae epistulae, ed. Petrus Cannetus, book VIII, letter 2, p. 353; also in Sabbadini, Storia e critica p. 2:    . . . Quod indicem dederis voluminum inquirendorum cum luliano nostro cardinali S. Angeli tum cardinali S. Crucis, Germaniam omnem omnemque Galliam diverso itinere peragraturis, fecisti tu studiose el ingenio No digne ... Also ref'd in Stadter, Philip A., Niccolò Nicholi: Winning back the knowledge of the ancients, Vestigia - Studi in onore di Giuseppe Billanovich II (1984), pp.747-764, on p.753.

22.  Robinson, Rodney, The Inventory of Niccolò Niccoli, Classical Philology 16 (1921), pp.251-255.

23.  The activities of Modius are detailed on the page devoted to the Codex Fuldensis.

24. Sabbadini gives ref to self p.115 - but ref is wrong, so try vol II.

25.  Sabbadini p.256.

26.  As testified by the London MS written by Tristano Chalco which states this.

27.  Trithemius is dealt with elsewhere on these pages.

28.  See the pages on Early Editions.

29.  Pierre Petitmengin, Tertullien entre la fin du XIIe et le début du XVIe siècle, in M. CORTESI (ed), Padri Greci e Latini a confronto: Atti del Convegno di studi della Società Internazionale per lo Studio del Medioevo Latino.  Firenze: SISMEL (2004).  pp. 63-88.  Checked.


This page has been online since 10th December 1999.

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