From: St. Dominic and His Work, by Pierre Mandonnet, O.P.,
        Translated by Sister Mary Benedicta Larkin, O.P., B. Herder Book Co., St. Louis/London, 1948.

Literary Productivity

THE life of study on which the activity of the Preachers was grounded, the professorial work to which a large number were devoted, and their abiding concern for a universal and urgent apostolate resulted in a great literary productivity that rapidly included all fields of learning. Along with the word, and even in a more enduring way, the book was for the Preacher the great instrument of doctrinal propaganda. From the beginning, therefore, the friars resolutely engaged in writing as part of their mission.

We know that St. Dominic not only taught Holy Scripture to his first disciples, but that he also wrote commentaries or glosses on certain books of the New Testament. Under his direction at Bologna in 1220, Paul of Hungary prepared the first manual of moral theology for the use of confessors. Given such an impetus, there could be no stopping, and from day to day this literary activity grew prodigiously. A contemporary chronicler, describing the laborious life of the Preachers about the year 1230, did not fail to emphasize their application to writing: "The Preachers give themselves without rest to study and the reading of the Sacred Books. By their industry in the composition of books and their diligence in understanding the masters, they are warriors clad in solid armor and fortified with bows and arrows; they can go into battle and run to the defense of Holy Mother the Church."

The literary output of the Preachers during the first century of their existence was enormous. Unfortunately most of their works remained in manuscript, and many have been lost. Though a rough estimate is difficult, it seems that what the Preachers produced before the middle of the fourteenth century was not far from equaling the whole of what had been previously written in the Latin Church between the time of the Fathers and the thirteenth century.

What subjects were treated? The Dominican pen touched on practically all knowledge, divine and human. in virtue of the vocation of the Order, however, the theological and philosophical sciences took pre-eminence. The works of the Preachers ranged in length from very extensive treatises to shorter compositions, while, according to the nature of the subject, they pursued the loftiest speculative problems or the most ordinary practical ends. Some works testify to the forcefulness of thought in their authors, others to a simple diligence, for the Order pursued the instruction of all social classes.

Aware of the vastness of their literary achievement, the Preachers attempted an inventory of their works in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. Compiled at Paris in the convent of St. Jacques, under the title Tabula scriptorum, this is the most remarkable bibliographical project of the epoch, perhaps even of the entire Middle Ages. Although incomplete, it suffices to give an impression of the effort expended by the Order in the domain of books.

The literature of the Preachers was not only remarkable in extent and variety, but much of it was of first rank, because epochal: such works blazed fresh trails, for a long time unparalleled and unsurpassed.


The Preachers were the first to undertake new studies on the Bible, the text of which formed the basis of their theological teaching. Under the direction of Hugh of St. Cher, they began at Paris the difficult task of correcting the text of the Vulgate; the work, which was finished in 1236, comprised the text approved in the Order, in the University, and little by little in the whole Church. The Dominican revision furnished the basis for our actual Vulgate text. Attempts to improve the sacred text were likewise pursued by the Paris Dominicans. About the same time Hugh of St. Cher created the biblical concordances, since then in universal use. These were revised successively by other Preachers. The same Hugh was responsible for the first complete commentary on the whole scriptural text; but the commentaries of St. Thomas Aquinas on certain books of the Bible far surpassed those of his contemporaries in critical value, literal objectivity, and theological knowledge. An interpretation of the four Gospels by means of texts drawn from the Fathers, attributed likewise to St. Thomas, and known as the Catena aurea, provided the clergy with a work rich in thought for their personal instruction and preaching, and it continued to be a model of its kind, From all appearances, the Parisian Preachers, while producing other great scriptural works, took in hand the translation of the French Bible. The names of other religious are likewise associated with translations of the Bible into the vernacular in different European countries.

For importance and number, theological works rank first in the Preachers' literary activity. Most of the theologians who wrote, especially those in the great university centers, composed commentaries on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the classical text for bachelors in the schools of theology. The writings on disputed questions and quodlibet questions are evidences of masterly skill. The theological summas followed a more complete and more coherent Plan than that of Peter Lombard, emphasizing philosophical principles not found in the Book of Sentences. Manuals of theology and manuals or summas of penance, for the use of confessors, were numerous. The oldest Dominican commentaries on the Sentences were those of Roland of Cremona, Hugh of St. Cher, Richard Fishacre, Robert Kilwardby, and Albert the Great, The series began in the year 1230, if not earlier, and the last cited here were completed before the middle of the century. The Summa theologica of St. Thomas (1267-73) stands as the masterpiece of theology. The Compendium theologicae veritatis of Hugh Ripelin of Strasbourg (d. 1268) was a real jewel and the most celebrated manual of the Middle Ages. The Summa de poenitentia of St. Raymond of Peñafort, composed in 1235, commanded sustained influence, and was among the works of which multiple copies were made. Finally, the Summa confessorum of John of Freiburg in Breisgau was, according to connoisseurs, a most perfect specimen of this type of work.

Established primarily for the defense of the faith, the Preachers aimed at reaching all classes of dissidents within or without the Church, they wrote by far the most powerful treatises in the field of apologetic. The Summa adversus Catharos et Valdenses by Moneta of Cremona, in course of composition in 1244, was the most complete and most solid production of the Middle Ages against the two great heretical sects of the period. The Summa contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the finest creations of this master, constructed a defense of the Christian faith in opposition to Arabic philosophy. Raymond Martin in his Pugio fidei, on which he was at work in 1278, took issue with Judaism and showed an extensive knowledge of rabbinical literature. It was the outstanding medieval monument of Orientalism. Lastly, the Florentine Ricoldo of Monte Croce (d. 1320), a missioner in the Orient, composed his Propugnaculum fidei against the doctrine of the Koran, quoting directly from Arabic literature.

The most celebrated philosophical works of the thirteenth century are those of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. The former constructed, on the Aristotelian model, a vast scientific encyclopedia which exerted a profound influence on the last centuries of the Middle Ages. In addition to the special studies and the philosophical articles included in his other works, Thomas Aquinas commented in whole or in part on thirteen treatises of Aristotle, which are the fundamental works of the Stagirite. Robert of Kilwardby, an exponent of ancient Augustinianism, composed the most important introduction to philosophy in that period in De ortu et divisione philosophiae. Theodore of Freiburg at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century left a work, remarkable for its scientific character, in which for the first time appeared an exact theory about the rainbow. Then there was the most celebrated Greek translator of the whole epoch, William of Moerbeke, who revised the translations of Aristotle, translated other works of the Stagirite previously unavailable, and produced in Latin numerous volumes from the Greek philosophers and other scholars of antiquity.

In the historical field, the accomplishment of the Preachers was considerable. They compiled studies in general, ecclesiastical, and profane history. The works of Vincent of Beauvais, Martin of Troppau, Ptolemy of Lucca, and Bernard Guidonis were particularly significant. Bernard Guidonis, whose historical work is the most remarkable of the period, displayed an erudition in which, for the first time, there was a sense of documentation and a noteworthy spirit of criticism. The anonymous Dominican chronicler of Colmar had a penetrating view of what we today call the history of civilization.

The Preachers composed a notable collection of treatises that may be classified as literature of education, since it was to be at the disposal of all classes of society for their enlightenment: manuals for the education of princes and the government of their states, for the reform of Christian society, for the training of religious, for preachers, for the religious instruction of the people and children.

Over and above the types mentioned, the Preachers in their vast literary heritage treasure some works of a truly unique character, for their like is not found among contemporary productions of that era. In this class are the Letters of Blessed Jordan of Saxony to Blessed Diana of Andalò, the treatise De musica of Jerome of Moravia, the Geography of the Holy Land by Burkart of Mt. Sion, the Golden Legend by Jacopo de Voragine, the Philobiblion or treatise on the Love of Books by Robert of Holcot, and many others.