Oldest Christian Stemmata


Historians of early Christianity have never given more than passing attention to the graphic depictions of the genealogy of Christ which are found in 24 Spanish, Gascon, Meuse Valley and Italian manuscripts (list, plot of one manuscript) which date as far back as the 10th century.[*]Of the 24 manuscripts, only about half preserve a semblance of the diagram's original format.

On the simplest level, this table, spread over several pages, could be described as an elaborate "family tree", with Adam and Eve as the root node and Jesus Christ as their most remote child. I have now placed it online in a schematic representation. The document, if it is headed at all, is generally entitled Genealogia ab Adam usque ad Christum per ordines linearum.[*]More or less: The Genealogy from Adam to Christ in Sketch Fashion. Compare the similar use of the word linea in Cassiodorus's advocacy of stemmatic illustrations by way of the linealis descriptio.

Closer examination shows that the table is more than just a stemma (a diagram of ramifications). It also contains a chronicle of the sort used by Late Antique Christian writers[*]In particular Theophilus, Julius Africanus and Eusebius. See the bibliography for more on these authors. in an attempt to establish the date of Creation, and in some cases also to predict the Second Coming of Christ. The stemma-cum-chronicle expresses exegetical views that attempt to reconcile internal contradictions in scripture.

In its classic version, the document contains the names of about 540 Old Testament persons, each enclosed in a circle or roundel. This Great Stemma, as I call it, is orders of magnitude larger than the lawyers' stemma in Isidore's definition or the type of logical stemma as used by Cassiodorus. The Great Stemma shows up in medieval compilations of useful historical documents, as front matter to manuscript bibles of the luxury category and as a form of illustration to the Commentary on the Apocalypse, a book written by the Spanish monk Beatus in or about the year 776, but it is a distinct work of intellectual creativity with its own, difficult-to-reconstruct history.

Contemporary studies[*]By Neuss, Williams, Zaluska, Klapisch-Zuber: see the bibliography. have established that much of the Latin text in the diagram goes back far beyond the medieval period. It is in fact a relic of Late Antiquity, employing Latin names translated from the Greek of the Septuagint by one or more authors before the Vulgate version of the Old Testament (compiled by Jerome of Stridon in the period 390-405) had gained wide currency[*]Fischer: Überlieferung, 19.

The fact that the Great Stemma has escaped widespread scholarly attention can be partly put down to the seeming impossibility of attaching an author or date to it.[*]Zaluska declined to propose any date at all: Composé à une époque indéterminée, à partir de sources fort anciennes, ce texte particulier a subi au cours de son existence des reprises et des retouches qui ont abouti à la création de véritables recensions. Il me paraît particulièrement téméraire de vouloir à tout prix dater un texte dont on apprécie mal la nature et les sources. La recherche que je suis en train de mener sur ce texte n'est pas encore achevée; je m'abstiendrai donc volontiers de trancher la question (Feuillets, note 24). Unfortunately, she never published her conclusions. It contains only a few dozen words of theological text, clearly belonging to a current that magnifies the role of Mary, the mother of Christ. The Great Stemma seems to have escaped any recommendation or criticism by early Christian writers, making its place in Christian history difficult to assess.

This stemma was so prized as a stock book illustration in Spain that it continued to be used to enrich fine manuscripts for perhaps 500 or 600 years after it was first devised, usually preserving apocryphal persons and archaic forms of Old Testament names and acquiring an accumulation of errors.

Some 26 medieval copies of the Great Stemma are documented (two no longer exist), but it is conceivable that this genealogy of Christ was reproduced dozens more times. The Great Stemma may have served as model for the even more popular Genealogy of Christ or Compendium, a huge scroll-form diagram by Peter of Poitiers or Petrus Pictaviensis. Echoes of its design are found more than 1,000 years after its first authorship in engravings supervised by John Speed for the Geneva Bible in English in 1611[*]Speed.

Although the Great Stemma is termed a "Genealogy of Christ" (since it reproduces the sum total of Gospel data about Jesus's ancestry), it bears little resemblance to the graphic genealogies known as "ascent trees", where the youngest person is the focus and an ever-widening array of ancestors is shown. Graphically, it is closer to a "descent tree", which is to say that its ramifications spring from the ancestors and multiply to their children and grandchildren. In this sense, it should be more accurately called a "Genealogy of Adam".

Its root, Adam the first man, is not shown at centre top as a modern reader might expect, but in the left upper corner, so that the stemma ramifies both rightwards and downwards. The progress rightwards is at the macro level, matching a largely lost timeline through thousands of years from Adam to Christ, while the downwards unfurling is at a micro level, usually by a single generation and then sibling by sibling.

The graphical conventions used in the Great Stemma are stable enough that the artist-copyists who sectioned the original large diagram into pages that would fit in books were able to selectively depart from the design without descending into nonsense. With the main axes clearly established, the direction of expansion may exceptionally curl back leftwards where the artist is short of space to accommodate a very large number of roundels. The roundels are generally joined by short lines, but where space is lacking in some of the extant copies, two roundels simply touch one another to signify that they connect.

Medieval editors must have seen older models that encouraged them to make the wiring even more complex: the Plutei stemma adds a long connector that springs from the bottom of one page to the top of the next, and on the first page of the Millán stemma, long connectors snake and cross one another rather like a complex freeway map to exploit all the available page space.

The connector lines themselves are ambivalent. In the upper reaches of the Great Stemma, they can signify either marriage or a series of father-son relationships, but where a family is shown in more detail, a succession of brothers is often entrained along a single vertical or zig-zagging line. No confusion is caused by this ambiguity, because each roundel contains the Latin name of both its occupant and his father.

Some scholars argue that the Great Stemma's violations of its own axial rules imply a lack of sophistication, or that the author lacked the wit to place similar generations at a similar height on the page, to fork the connecting lines consistently, or to differentiate the various relationships (wives, sons or none) with colour coding or special connectors.[*]See in particular the criticism by Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane, L'Ombre des Ancêtres.

Those defects are more likely in fact to be damage done by editors to the archetypal stemma. Even if some of these "illogical" features do stem from the original format, they can hardly be taken as evidence that the Great Stemma's anonymous author was incompetent at graphic design. Some of the features follow design rules that have their own logic, though this may not be evident to modern readers, and others reflect what we would nowadays call "loose" document standards in the sense that most hand-designed web pages in the late 20th century employed "loose" hypertext markup language (HTML), not "strict" markup, or that manuscript documents up to the 19th century, even by writers with sophisticated orthographic training, were liberal in their spelling.

Loose solutions are not proof of incompetence, but indicators that the authors or editors perceived over-strictness as a drain on time and a distraction from their mission of writing for clarity and immediacy.

The original practical purpose of the Great Stemma is not entirely clear. It is definitely not a mnemonic device, a two-dimensional theatre of memory, as has sometimes been suggested. Complex tree-form diagrams reduce content to a logical minimum and are devoid of any accompanying markers that might nurture visual memory. Genealogies are far easier to learn in the form of narratives or lists. Even copying the Great Stemma to a blank page in a scriptorium was difficult to do accurately, as the numerous errors in our copies prove. Like a detailed electrical wiring diagram, a stemma is unsuitable as a device for inputting information to the human memory.

In cognitive terms, a stemma is most useful as as a mechanism for mental output and for indexing what one knows in a ready reference. Such a diagram can be termed an "external storage device". As Cassiodorus might have said, a stemma may either be used to format the mind to learn from the verbal explanation that follows, or allow one to test later what has been memorized, but it cannot replace other learning methods including classroom discourse.

If the author of the Great Stemma did intend to create such a monument of visual analysis, his editors soon subverted his purpose. They built more and more errors into the Great Stemma, yet failed in their efforts at revision, leaving the biblical names in outdated Latin or corrupted forms that were unfindable in the Vulgate Latin. As a work of reference it became not only confusing but unusable, yet still it kept on being reproduced. Why?

In its day, the Great Stemma would have appeared to many as a masterly scientific reformulation of scripture. Unlike difficult text or easy pictorial illuminations, it would have impressed many readers as an intellectually rigorous distillation into 16, 14 or fewer pages of the story of the Incarnation and Salvation. A user was not required to read it from start to finish, but could simply appreciate it as a whole, fixing an eye on the well-known root persons - Adam, Noah, Abraham and David - while sampling the exotic names from just a few randomly chosen roundels.

The images at the page corners of some editions and the panels of text between the roundels served somewhat like pictures and captions today, inviting the reader to focus on them, then simply fly over the rest of the content.

We cannot be certain when the Great Stemma was compiled, or by whom, or even if its original language was Latin or Greek, but it seems to be beyond doubt that a single, now-lost model circulating in Visigothic Spain accounts for its wide distribution there. There is no evidence that the Great Stemma was new in the 9th century: there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that it was by then already very old.

The compelling evidence that the Great Stemma dates back to Late Antiquity comes from an analysis of its structure and comparison with another document, the Liber Genealogus, which can be reliably dated to the year 427. The Great Stemma's theological content shows an affinity with the work of early Christian writers. Extensive errors in the text in the medieval period had arisen through copying and recopying, without access to the original text.

The Great Stemma's left-to-right orientation suggests that it was originally drawn in one piece, on a scroll to be unrolled from left to right, and was only later split into 18 or fewer discrete codex pages. The way that certain errors collectively occur across page breaks does indeed suggest that certain mistakes might have been made while the Great Stemma was still all in one piece.

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