The Digital Document Detective Episode 1: Online Sources for Patristic Study

One of the guilty pleasures of research for me is trying to beat the challenge of finding that hard-to-discover primary or secondary document (i.e. the original source, or the things written about that source). At first blush, it looks as though you have to travel to Stuttgart or the British Library to find that rare document, which from Melbourne, Australia, where I live, is not just around the corner. But when you scratch around in internet land and locate it in some obscure digital repository, there’s a definite nerdy satisfaction to be had.

I’ve found a few new places, or kinds of places, where those old writings can be found, or newer ones that at first seem locked away in universities. I am studying church fathers at the moment, so that determines which digital doorways I’m going to mention this time around. On the off chance that it helps your research, if you’re a student of ancient Christian thought and writing, here are some ideas. And they’re all free.

  1. For every student of church history or history of ideas, the broadest collection available in English is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, the centrepiece of which is the entire series of translations edited by Philip Schaff in the late nineteenth century: The Ante-Nicene Fathers and the Post-Nicene Fathers series I & II (http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html). It’s about thirty volumes’ worth, which you can still buy as half a bookshelf-full of paper volumes, if you’ve gone insane. Online it’s searchable and covers some of the biggest names of the patristic period, including eight volumes of Augustine, always worth reading, and six volumes of Chrysostom. But then, you probably already knew that. Tell me something I don’t know, I hear you say.
  2. Okay, but it’s going to get a little more obscure. There’s a patristic document series called Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller, a series of translations into German dating from around 1900. Lo and behold, many of the volumes can be found on either Internet Archive or a few on Google Books, and a list of links has been compiled by Roger Pearse on his blog. Very handy, with some of these documents quite hard to find elsewhere. Not so the somewhat more recent and very complete French series, Sources Chrétiennes, with original text and French translation on facing pages, which is safely under publisher’s lock and key.
  3. On a site called Early Medieval Monasticism, there is similar list of links to available documents from the series Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, a large part of the series now being out of copyright. This isn’t Reader’s Digest, it’s just the original Latin, but in some circumstances, that’s exactly what you need.
  4. The king of such original language documents, or the two kings (diumvirate??), are the numerous volumes in the nineteenth-century collections known for short as Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina, both edited by J.-P. Migne. When I was studying formally I was photocopying out of big, dusty paperback volumes out of my university library. Now they’re available free online, and one ready way to find the PDF images (largish downloads) is via Documenta Catholica Omnia for the former, and via Patristica.net for either one – e.g. Latina here.
  5. What about some English stuff, then? Here’s a good one: numerous volumes of the handy series Fathers of the Church are available on Internet Archive. I’ve been able to get to the translations I needed from figures like Chrysostom, Basil and Ambrose, and they’re more recent (1960s-80s for these examples) than those in the Schaff series found at CCEL.
  6. Alright, here’s a bonus example, and we’ll call this a patristic series and have a later post for later sources. Sometimes it’s worth searching for a work that might have been put up individually. A few days ago I discovered that an English translation of Gregory the Great’s Moralia on Job, a monumental work about practically every possible point of Christian theology, had been laboriously transcribed and put online here. So it’s always worth searching; you just never know what’s out there.
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