Summa minutiae

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought. — Lord Peter Wimsey

Catholic books on the spiritual life

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Sorted by Library of Congress catalog number, where available; books without a catalog number are sorted by date.

John Swinnerton Phillimore

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John Swinnerton Phillimore was a classical scholar, poet, Catholic convert and a friend of Hilaire Belloc. The Internet Archive has a small collection of his works. The following quotes are from his preface to the Manresa Press edition of the sermons of St John Fisher on the seven Penitential Psalms:

The mind of a time

History is everywhere, if you are on the alert for her: and every book has, beyond its intrinsic quality, a further quality as being a piece or a document of the mind of its time. What was our countrymen’s mind like in the fatal half-century before the apostasy? You may learn it from descriptions by historians, if you please to take their word for it, but unless you know what books any generation of men read and took pleasure in, the mind of that time is closed to you.

On translating English texts into modern English

The modern eye cannot travel freely, picking up its clues on the page, where even the commonest word is an orthographical monster, and the stops give no clue to the articulation of the sentence. In this respect Mayor’s text is a monument of laborious pedantry. Consider this phrase for example :

“Every one of them wolde execute all that perteyneth to his office quykly without fayninge or parcyalyte.”

It looks a queer enough collection of beasts to set on a modern page, and one takes some little thought to discover what “quykly” and “parcyalyte” may mean. Show this to the railway traveller at the bookstall, and his shilling will not rise to such a bait with much eagerness. Yet nothing is amiss with it but the disguise. Put it in modern form:

“Every one of them would execute all that pertaineth to his office quickly without feigning or partiality.”

and nothing is left that need disconcert an ordinarily literate reader. All that outlandishness, all that air as of some quaint half-real thing raised up on the farther side of a vast chasm of time, across which we have no equal and familiar communications, is almost wholly a matter of dressing and presenting, or, in other words, of spelling and pointing.

On the prose style of St John Fisher

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Here’s J. S. Phillimore on the prose style of St John Fisher’s sermons:

As a book of devotion it certainly escapes the commonest fault in that kind, the sin of sweetishness or false unction. The reason why this so often defaces books of devotion is that they are taken from foreign originals with too little respect for idiom. Much sentiment is good and pleasant to the native palate in French or Italian, which, done into English, will estrange, offend and even scandalize an English reader. The literary charm, the raciness, the solidity and sincerity of Fisher’s English give a most engaging address to these printed missionaries. Reading and rereading these proofs I find him, in my own experience, extraordinarily satisfying and uncloying. Such sweetness without sentimentality, such mastery in tempering hope and fear together, rebuke and consolation; in a word, such a man, and such a Saint.

The complete works of St Thomas More

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The writings of Thomas More were scarce in 1914 when J. S. Phillimore wrote his preface to the Manresa Press edition of the sermons of St John Fisher on the seven Penitential Psalms:

The young student who swallows what his hand books tell him is never allowed to suspect that More’s English works fill 1400 pages of folio. Or suppose him to have learned this much (for the literary histories mention it), he is little the forwarder. There is hardly a possibility of his reading them. Since 1557 there has never been a complete reprint; and only three pieces, I think, have been reprinted at all.

Yale University published the works of More in a scholarly edition of 15 volumes between 1963 and 1997, but 15 volumes at about $100 per volume comes to way too damn much for me to pay.

The 1557 edition (funky spelling, gothic type, crappy printing, &c.) is on the web here at the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas. There’s a transcription & translation job there for a young scholar with a steady eye and an iron butt.