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On The Government Of God by Salvian

VII. Estimates of Salvian's Work

When Brassicanus published his first edition of Salvian's treatise On the Government of God, he found ready applause for his achievement in rescuing so great a work from the dust and spider webs of a thousand years; the occasion was a fitting one for those odes which his contemporaries so loved to write. Perhaps his romantic tale of the manuscripts he had found at Buda in the library of his friend Matthew Corvinus, king of Bohemia, just before its destruction by the Turks, absorbed his friends' interest so far that they forgot the scribes who had made this edition possible by their earlier copies of the book. While we have no other evidence for the reading of Salvian's books between the date of Gennadius' account, which seems to be the source of the scanty later mentions, and Sichardus' publication of Against Avarice in 1528, the manuscripts lend their testimony that copies were made, corrected, and presumably read, in the tenth century, and in the twelfth, thirteenth and fifteenth as well. The scholars of the sixteenth century were not unlike some of our own days in considering those ages dark of which they knew little.

Once printed, however, Salvian's works enjoyed great popularity. Jurists, including Sirmond, Cujas, Godefroi and Rittershausen, whose notes on Salvian are packed with legal references, consulted his books and cited them extensively in their studies of the Roman codes. The French clergy during four centuries found that he furnished material so appropriate to the personal vices and social disorders of their own times that they emulated the earlier bishops of Gaul in preaching Salvian's sermons instead of writing their own. When Bossuet called him |le saint et éloquent prêtre de Marseille| his clerical readers must have assented with due gratitude. A German translator also praises his usefulness for the clergy in furnishing them so rich a source of Schönheiten and practical suggestions, that they should never let his works leave their hands. Historians found his work of great value, especially when the current interpretation of history was most sympathetic to his constant reiteration: |It is only our vicious lives that have conquered us.| So Johannes Jovianus Pontanus pointed out Salvian's special distinction in that, while writing of Christ and Christian topics, he had yet joined with these |very many histories and events of his own age, and commented sagely on them in the course of his account.| Zschimmer cites a long list of historians who have made extensive use of him; of these Guizot and Gibbon are the best known to us now, but many not named by Zschimmer would need to be added to bring the list up-to-date. Indeed of late years Salvian seems to have been cited more than read. It is difficult to find a history of the period that does not refer to him, or a source book of ancient or medieval history that does not quote at least one of half-a-dozen famous passages, but the text itself is little read.

That this neglect has been a distinct loss to students of the later days of the Roman power in the west, will, I trust, be apparent even to those who make their acquaintance with Salvian through the medium of a translation. Since, however, a study of his works inevitably engenders the habit of reference to |authority,| I shall not leave our author without this support. Know, then, that Pierre Pithou called Salvian |a most excellent author,| Joseph Scaliger named him |the most Christian writer.| Rittershausen, one of the most enthusiastic of editors, considered his opinions not only wholesome and holy, but fully apostolic, and judged, therefore, that Salvian should be deemed master not only of bishops, but of the whole Christian world as well.

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