What is Scrinium Augustini?

The correspondence of Augustine is a vast collection of texts. Certainly, all researchers and students need to find their own way to navigate through the wealth of topics addressed by the Bishop of Hippo as well as scores of other questions which might emerge while reading the letters. Browsing through the collection in search for passages relevant to one’s research questions may rightly seem a daunting task, as it requires strenuous effort which often may not bring satisfactory results.

It is perhaps worthwhile to quote from a distinguished scholar in the field of late antique literature (Danuta Shanzer), who has thus summarised the problems inextricably linked with the study of correspondence: ‘the data were compiled partially from my own knowledge of some of the Later Roman (primarily episcopal) letter-collections. Indices helped and kind friends provided suggestions. Hunting for keywords in electronic media, however, was not an entirely adequate way to find material’.

While relying on indices, kind friends and electronic text databases may be helpful, it is hardly a satisfactory approach to so large a collection as the correspondence of Augustine. We noticed, however, that it is indeed possible to create a ‘kind friend’ who could offer a comprehensive index of Augustine’s letters and be available for everyone at all times. Driven by the necessity and thrilled by the prospect of providing a useful research tool, our team has set up the database titled ‘Scrinium Augustini: The World of Augustine’s Letters’ which owes its name to a Latin term for a case or box used for storing books and documents, including correspondence.

As opposed to other electronic instruments (such as the Corpus Augustinianum Gissense or Brepols Library of Latin Texts), which make it possible to search for words or phrases in textual corpora, our database is founded on a different principle. We have decided to adopt a thematic approach and developed a structure of categories: in essence, the fundamental twelve categories described below include more specific sub-categories, each of them containing references to all instances in Augustine’s letters which fall into the given category. Every reference is linked to the text of the indicated letter in order to provide the reader with the context. Also, every single letter is tagged with the names of the categories and subcategories to which it has been assigned (for information on how to navigate in the database, please refer to the tutorial page).

As a team of five scholars, we have thoroughly studied all extant letters of Augustine, relying on the unsurpassed editions of Goldbacher and Divjak. After numerous discussions, we have decided to propose the following twelve categories:

Philosophy|Doctrine|Polemics|Ascetics/Monasticism|Religious Practice|Everyday Life|Political, Legal and Economic Issues|Language and Literary Culture|Augustine|Persons|Topography|Biblical Citations and References

A word of explanation is necessary concerning the rules we have followed in creating our main categories. First of all, we are fully aware that for Augustine there was no distinction between philosophy and theology. Nevertheless, this distinction seems to be fairly obvious today, so we decided to use it. There is, however, one notable exception: following Augustine, we have assigned all moral issues to a separate category (Philosophy/ethics).

Nevertheless, we did divide theology into two main categories: doctrine, which generally follows the divisions used today in systematic theology, and polemics, covering Augustine’s assertions related to the questions of doctrine and other religious issues. To give but two examples, while searching for passages concerning the original sin, it is advised to consult both Doctrine/sin and Polemics/Pelagians; should you be interested in the question of rebaptism, you might like to check both Doctrine/sacraments and Polemics/Donatists.

The category of religious practice embraces all issues related to the everyday life of the Church in North Africa in Augustine’s time: from baptisms to funeral rites, and from the provision of churches with clergy to trials of clerics. However, all references to ascetics and monasticism, on account of their importance in Augustine’s vision of Christian life, have been set apart as an independent category.

Apart from the ecclesiastical issues, there is much to be learnt from the letters regarding the everyday life in Roman North Africa, including such questions as climate and animals, houses and sea travel, family relations (dealing separately with marriage and other questions of family life). Themes related to law and justice, economy, state administration, military life and the like form the broad category of political, legal and economic issues.

The information which can be obtained from the letters about Augustine himself has been assigned to a separate category (Augustine), but should you like to study Augustine’s erudition and go through the wealth of his references (on grammar, the Bible, rhetoric and literary genres, to name but a few) and allusions to other works (from Christian and classical authors alike), go to Language and literary culture.

Finally, indices of persons, topographical names and of scriptural citations and references have been added.

We have to admit that in preparing the framework of categories we could not avoid a certain degree of arbitrariness, but we believe that this will not impinge heavily on the overall usefulness of the database; quite on the contrary, the arbitrary choices we have had to make may work to the users’ advantage and provide them with a sort of a map or a network of signposts to enhance their reading of Augustine’s letters.

What should also be noted is that while indexing the letters each of us approached the correspondence in a slightly different manner from that of the other members of the team. Inevitably, we are all biased in various ways due to our knowledge, research interests, and preconceptions. It is also important to note that we divided the letters among ourselves and each of us was focused primarily on his own portion of Augustine’s correspondence: as a result, the topics indexed in one portion may not necessarily be as thoroughly followed in the others, despite our best effort to do as many cross-checks as possible. For this reason, we wish to emphasise that our work is in many ways unfinished. But we do hope that it will be continued and with this in mind we invite you to contribute to improving the database: you can send your feedback through the [Addenda et Corrigenda] section of our website.

Scrinium Augustini is an open acces research tool and as such it will be always available for everyone free of charge. It is to be hoped that it will indeed prove to be useful in many ways – we are looking forward to hearing about all new findings and observations which may have been made with the help of this database.

Scrinium Augustini Team, scrinium@umk.pl