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Favourite DIB lives: John Scottus Eriugena, medieval scholar

06 May 2020

Selected by Dr Joseph Flahive of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources, John Scottus Eriugena was a prolific medieval scholar of Latin and Greek, 'rediscovered' in the nineteenth century. His biography is presented here as part of our ‘Favourite DIB lives’ series chosen by in-house academics and friends of the RIA.

Introduction by Joseph Flahive

In early medieval Ireland, scholarship was a largely an anonymous act. John Scottus Eriugena’s life is largely mysterious; despite his prolific writing. We know not whence he came, nor of what family; his nickname ‘John the Irishman (Scottus)’ arose in the Carolingian court; Eriugena, the distinctive Greek-derived synonym pleonastically paired with it, he created himself. Eriugena wrote in every area of contemporary scholarly inquiry, as well as areas in which he stood alone in his time. Among his literary and scholarly works, the most ambitious is his synthesis of Greek and Latin thought in a comprehensive metaphysical exploration of the universe, On the Nature of Things (Periphyseon or De Rerum Natura). 

When we, as lexicographers at the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources, read Eriugena, we must engage with his world of ideas. In addition to using the wide established vocabulary of philosophical, scientific and theological Latin, Eriugena required words for new concepts for which no word existed in Latin – or sometimes in any language. For this reason, he stretched the Latin language (and borrowed from a few others) to describe them with precision that can be understood by readers who would never before have seen those words. Eriugena is one of the most creative and prolific creators of new words in Latin, as the entries we compile for The Non-Classical Lexicon of Celtic Latinity testify. His commentaries and translations introduced original, yet wholly Latinate, words such as uaricolor, ‘having many hues, varicoloured’, and aequipotens, ‘of equal power or validity’. At other times, he used Greek roots, such as in diametrus, ‘a diameter’ and extended it philosophically in the phrase ex diametro, ‘in diametrical opposition’. He is pleased to introduce playful nonce-words, such as uatiuomus, ‘votary-vomiting, prophet-puking’, describing the whale that swallowed Jonah. There are a few, such as ifa, ‘some sort of honey’, whose origins we have not yet resolved. When John Eriugena presents us with a new word, we are taken on a tour of the cosmos, for which we require his analytica, ‘the art of philosophical analysis’.

John Scottus Eriugena

By Thomas O'Loughlin

John Scottus Eriugena (c.810–70×880), theologian. We know little about Eriugena's life: c.810 is conjectured as his date of birth, and between 870 and 880 fits with what we know for his date of death. We know he was born in Ireland: scottus was commonly applied to Irish scholars in the period; and Eriugena, ‘of Irish birth’ (‘Erigena’ is incorrect), he coined for himself, by parallel with Virgil's Graiugena, in the title of his translation of the Pseudo-Dionysius from Greek into Latin. That is, apparently, the only time he used ‘Eriugena’. His name, as used in recent times (Archbishop James Ussher of Dublin was the first to use it (1632) in the form ‘John Scotus Erigena’), is pleonastic, meaning ‘John the Irishman of Irish birth’. Of his career we know he was one of a group of Irish scholars in the Reims area in the mid ninth century. He first comes to notice in 851, while teaching in the palace school of Charles the Bald, when Hincmar of Reims asked him to refute Gottschalk's position of ‘double predestination’. Until his death Eriugena was linked to centres of learning in the area: Reims itself, Soissons, Laon, and Charles's palace at Compiègne.


Eriugena is one of the few Irish writers on the Continent whose origin in Ireland is beyond dispute today (but see below for the legend created by William of Malmesbury); not only does his name establish his place of birth, but Bishop Prudentius of Troyes, writing c.851, who had known him previously, explicitly stated that he was from Ireland. His early education was, most probably, in a monastery in Ireland, and this may point to his being a monk himself; but we have no evidence for certain. Prudentius states that he was not ‘marked out by any degree of church rank’ and this has sometimes been taken as indicating that he was a layman, but might simply mean that he was not in holy orders, nor the holder of a diocesan dignity. It is certain that Eriugena was thoroughly familiar with all the monastic learning of the time, and his being a monk is not incompatible with all we know of his movements and writings. Opinions vary as to how much of his learning he acquired in Ireland, but it should be noted that there is no reason to assume that there was much difference between the range of books available in the average continental monastery and a monastery in Ireland till well into the ninth century. Moreover, there exist a series of biblical glosses in Old Irish (assigned in the margins of the manuscripts to IO[annes] or IOH[annes], almost certainly Eriugena) showing him as having achieved an impressive technical competence within an Irish milieu, and with expertise not only in theology/exegesis but also in Irish law.

In 850–851 Archbishop Hincmar of Reims asked Eriugena to attack the teaching on predestination of the monk Gottschalk (805–68) of Orbais who had held since the 830s that God had preselected some, ‘the righteous’, for heaven, and others for damnation. The result was Eriugena's ‘De divina praedestinatione’, written while he taught in the palace of Charles the Bald. However, his reply not only did not satisfy Hincmar, but enraged him and other bishops in north-eastern France so much that they condemned the work in synods held in 855 at Valence and 859 at Langres. But there was, somewhat surprisingly, no condemnation of Eriugena as an individual or as a theologian: this is probably due in part to the protection that went with his attachment to the royal court, and partly because he seems to have been well known by his critics (such as Hincmar) or to have worked with them (such as Prudentius). By the late 850s John had obtained such a proficiency in Greek that he was able to take advantage of books sent to Charles the Bald by the eastern emperor, and in the early 860s his translation of the Pseudo-Dionysius appeared. It must have been after that that he began work on his masterpiece, the ‘Periphyseon’, for this is not only the work of a mature scholar but exploits to the full the range of Greek authors to which Eriugena now had access through their presence in Charles's library. How long he lived is not known with certainty: the date 877 is sometimes given, based on a late-ninth-century source, but to whom this date of death refers is ambiguous in that source; his death may have been earlier as there are no incidental references to him after 870.


Eriugena was a typical teacher of his time, concerned with the basics of understanding given through the arts; he shows his familiarity with the standard skills in the way he employed logic in his writings, and as teacher he commented on Martianus Capella's ‘De nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae’. Moreover, considering him as a teacher of theology we see that scriptural exegesis was central to his quest for sure bases in argument: he wrote commentaries on the gospel of John, much of the ‘Periphyseon’ is exegetical (particularly the six days of creation in Genesis, the hexaëmeron), and further evidence of his involvement with Scripture keeps coming to light. As a theologian involved in argument, his questions are those of the tradition formed in the aftermath of Augustine (creation, the manner of God's involvement with the world, grace, and human freedom are recurring themes). However, he stands apart from his contemporaries in (1) the originality with which he handled these Latin questions, and (2) his range of authorities. First, most Carolingian theologians saw their task as that of codifying and making accessible the body of material that had come down to them. This was done through excerpting, summarising, and providing commentaries with ever more snippets from the Fathers.

Eriugena, for all his citations and shared academic values, began with a systematic framework for the whole of reality – based on his logical organon – and then relocated his sources within that framework. Thus, while he was not the first to use a rationally established systematic (see the anonymous seventh- or eighth-century work ‘De ordine creaturarum’), he was the first to integrate questions about creation, revelation, and salvation in a single structure.

Second, Eriugena, almost uniquely, had access to, and was prepared to integrate into his own writing, Greek sources. He translated the Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor into Latin. By using concepts from these writers, principally regarding the negative nature of the creature's approach to God, and of creation as a ‘going-out-from and return-to God’, in combination with the Latin themes (creation as a history of divine activity), he produced the most original Latin work between the time of Augustine (354–430) and Aquinas (1225–74). There has been a tendency, however, to regard Eriugena solely in term of his originality (‘the peak in the plane’): this has led to distorted views of his work, a more balanced picture requires more research into his Carolingian surroundings.

The ‘Periphyseon’, in five books, uses the form of the pupil interrogating his teacher about the whole of reality. This format is for Eriugena a synecdoche of the human quest for knowledge and salvation: like the disciples around the Word. The quest is for an understanding of the relationships between all that is and is not, and within the realm of being, between the creator and the creation. Thus Eriugena sees what can be spoken of (natura) divided into four: (1) uncreated and creating (God) and (2), its contradictory, uncreated and uncreating (nothing); (3) created and creating (the primordial causes) and (4), its contradictory, created and uncreating (the material universe). Divisions 2 and 3 proceed from God and have as their destiny – fulfilled in the Word incarnate – the return to God. This process Eriugena refers to as deificatio (rendering theosis). This approach has led some modern readers to present him as a pantheist ante nomen; however, this accusation fails to note either the distance he sees between God and the creation, or how he focuses on the tradition of creatio ex nihilo – expressed in his use of patristic Genesis commentaries.

Moreover, there has been a tendency to see him solely in philosophical terms as a Christian Neoplatonist, hence his engagement with theology has not received due attention. Indeed, there are studies of Eriugena ‘the philosopher’ which hardly acknowledge that he saw himself within an explicitly theological vision of the universe. This is best seen by noting that within his sacramental view of the creation – influenced by pseudo-Dionysius along with Augustine – he has a very definite christology. It is seen, above all, in the culmination of the ‘Periphyseon’, book 5: the whole activity of God in creation is seen in relation to the incarnation of the Word. This is the pivotal point of history (both of creation and salvation): the high point of creation going out from God and the beginning and means of its return. For some scholars this understanding of the incarnation seems but an ahistorical cosmic event without concern for history, but Eriugena's scheme fails without the historical event of Jesus as the Word becoming flesh, which completes what was begun in history in Adam. And now, after the events of Eden, Christ is the signal to fallen humanity, calling it back to its source and healing human transgressions (Bk 3,684A). The Word descends to redeem those created realities that have their origin in the Word (see John 1:3), and so are in him and called back to their destiny. When all creation is unified at the End, this is a Christological reality: ‘the common end of the whole of creation is the Word of God’ (5,893A). In this ‘bringing back’, because the Word assumes humanity, humanity is assumed and raised up to a union ‘above the things that are and the things that are not’ (5,895B). And, this whole process is foreshadowed in the Transfiguration (Mt 17:1–8 and parallels) when, in communion with the risen Christ, risen humanity is transfigured to be like him, and offered to humanity to show that Christ is the summit of contemplation (see his prayer to Christ at 5,1010C).


Because its strangeness distanced it from its own academic milieu, Eriugena's work had little impact; appreciation would suppose such a systematic framework as appeared only in the twelfth century. Then it had a form different from Eriugena's, and consequently his work became open to suspicions of heresy: it was neither like recent developments nor like older works then being bypassed. This was further complicated by the fact that in the early twelfth century William of Malmesbury developed a complete legendary history of Eriugena under the name of ‘John Heruligena’ suggesting that he was German. William links him with a John who taught at King Alfred's court in England and who was martyred by his young students! This unfamiliarity, confusion, and the memory of the condemnations of 855 and 859 (which inspired later condemnations in 1050, 1059, and 1225) meant that not only was his work sidelined, but he became an ‘outsider’ in the history of thought, on whom could be projected many later constructions: so for John Toland (1670–1722) Eriugena became the father of pantheism; to others a precursor of a renaissance Neoplatonist; while to others he became an heroic restless intellect challenging dogmatic authorities.

The recovery of Eriugena's thought really only began with the edition of the ‘Periphyseon’ by H. J. Floss in 1853 (one of the rare new editions that appeared in J. P. Migne's Patrologia Latina), but it was eighty years later before the first ground-breaking study appeared by Maïeul Cappuyns (Jean Scot Êrigène: sa vie, son œuvre, sa pensée, Louvain and Paris, 1933). Today Eriugenian studies is an established branch of medieval studies, but relates more to the history of ideas than Celtic studies.

Sources: M. Brennan, A bibliography of publications in the field of Eriugenian studies 1800–1977 (Spoleto, 1977); M. Lapidge and R. Sharpe, A bibliography of Celtic-Latin literature 400–1200 (1985), nn 695–713; M. Brennan, ‘Materials for the Biography of Johannes Scottus Eriugena,‘ Studi Medievali, 3rd ser., xxvii (1986), 413–60; J. J. O'Meara, Eriugena (1988); M. Brennan, A guide to Eriugenian studies: a survey of publications 1930–1987 (Fribourg, 1989); G. van Riel, ‘A bibliographical survey of Eriugenian studies: 1987–1995’, G. van Riel, C. Steel, and J. McEvoy (ed.), Iohannes Scottus Eriugena: the Bible and hermeneutics (Leuven, 1996), 367–400; J. J. Contreni and P. Ó Néill, Glossae divinae historiae: the biblical glosses of John Scottus Eriugena (Florence, 1997); D. Carabine, John Scottus Eriugena (2000); G. van Riel, ‘Eriugenian studies: 1995–2000’, J. McEvoy and M. Dunne (ed.), History and eschatology in Iohannes Scottus Eriugena and his time (Leuven, 2002), 611–26; M. Herren, ‘John Scottus Ériugena’, S. Duffy (ed.), Medieval Ireland: an encyclopedia (2005), 157–9; ODNB


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