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Pioneers of Patristic Scholarship: François Combefis (1605 – 1679)

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Some of the first editions of writers like St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas were produced by a French Dominican named François Combefis. His life and pioneering work spanned the reigns of Louis XIII, ‘the Just’ (d. 1643), and Louis XIV, ‘the Great’ (d. 1715). In a time that saw the burgeoning of a ‘Republic of Letters’ across Western Europe, the rise of Quietism and Jansenism in Counter-Reformation France, and the first hints of a new ‘Enlightenment,’ François Combefis distinguished himself as one of the foremost scholars, textual critics, and translators of patristic texts. His compendia of early Christian and Byzantine theological writings laid the groundwork for the achievements of later publishers like J.-P. Migne, and even today his editions and translations remain among the standard versions in which the Fathers continue to be read.

Patristic, Annunciation, Combefis, Patrology, Patrologist
The Altarpiece at the Convent of the Annunciation during the time of Combefis

Combefis, a contemporary of René Descartes, Oliver Cromwell, and Galileo, was born at Marmande in southwest France (Aquitaine) and educated by the Jesuits at a time when the Society of Jesus was still deeply enmeshed in the fight with Protestantism. At the age of nineteen, Combefis joined the Dominican order, where, for the next sixteen years, he worked as a teacher. By the age of thirty-five, he possessed the learning and necessary skills—in theology, the study of ancient languages, and paleography—to begin a storied career as an editor of patristic texts. This stage of Combefis’ life began when he was transferred to Paris in 1640, to live at the Convent of the Annunciation on the Rue Saint-Honoré (subsequently known as the Couvent des Jacobins, which famously gave its name to the Jacobin Club, which met there during the French Revolution). This was a convent of Dominicans of the ‘Strict Observance,’ founded less than thirty years earlier.[1] The Convent is said to have owned some 32,000 books and over 100 manuscripts. This, and proximity to what is now the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (home to some of the most important Greek manuscripts in the world), and access to the other great libraries of Europe, allowed Combefis to dedicate the rest of his life entirely to making the writings of the Greek Fathers available in print, in both the original Greek and in accessible Latin translations.

Combefis’ first publication, in 1644, was a bilingual edition of the works of Amphilochios of Iconium, Methodios of Olympos, and Andrew of Crete (available here). The importance of this edition, which is something of a patchwork of shorter texts, is easy to underestimate. It contained the celebrated Life of Saint Basil[2] attributed to St Amphilochios (known for his firm opposition to Arianism); selections from Methodios that included the first edition of the Banquet of the Ten Virgins as well as the anti-Origenist work On the Resurrection; and the Lenten masterpiece known as the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. In his introduction to this edition,

Combefis notes that he was actually spurred on to this work not by his own initiative and desire, but by the insistence of his confrères, who must have recognized his exceptional talents, and who obviously desired to mine the riches of the Greek Fathers for their own edification and study. In his endorsement of the book, Combefis’ fellow Dominican Jacques Goar makes special mention of the labor, industry, and ‘elucubrations’ of the great scholar in bringing to light these writings of the Fathers and making them accessible to contemporary students of theology.

Patristic, Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscripts
The Bibliothèque nationale de France, which traces its origins to 1368

The following year, in 1645, Combefis published the Scholia to Dionysios attributed to St Maximos the Confessor, an early Byzantine commentary on the writings of the Areopagite that greatly influenced how the Dionysian corpus was read in both East and West throughout the medieval period.[3]

Patristics, Combefis, Paris
The Place du Marché Saint Honoré, where the Convent of the Annunciation once stood

Three years later, at the age of forty-three, Combefis published his Novum auctarium Graecolatinae patrum bibliothecae in two volumes. The first part (available here), which Combefis describes as ‘exegetical’ in nature, was a monument of patristic scholarship that gathered in print a very large number of festal sermons and hymnographic texts relating to the liturgical celebrations of the Orthodox Church, especially the ‘feasts of the Lord,’ and including an entire section dedicated to ‘feasts of the Mother of God.’ The Novum auctarium includes the writings of Asterios of Amasea, Proclus of Constantinople, Leontios the Presbyter, Germanos of Constantinople, and many others, giving the impression that no one in Western Europe at the time had a greater appreciation for the Greek Fathers and their liturgically-inspired writings than François Combefis.

The second part of the Novum auctarium was comprised of a History of the Monothelite Heresy (available here), which deals with the seventh-century controversy over the two wills of Christ (human and divine) but also goes far beyond the original Christological debates to examine many points of Eastern Christian history and dogma. The Historia is in fact a wide-ranging compendium of oriental source material, reproducing not only the Acta of the relevant seventh-century Synods, the writings of St Maximos the Confessor, and of John and Timothy of Constantinople, but many other documents, e.g., on the Armenian Church, the Iconoclast controversy, and even the Great Schism. Combefis’ treatment of the Monothelite heresy (which involved the sticky problem of the fate of Pope Honorius) famously involved him in his own contemporary controversy. His own interpretation of events, despite the imprimaturs, royal permissions, and theological endorsements it received, was not strictly in keeping with the dominant orthodoxy of Counter-Reformation historiography, as expressed, for example by the Cardinals Robert Bellarmine and Caesar Baronius. Indeed, Combefis’ position on Honorius may be one of the reasons that the eminent French priest and scholar was never given the red hat himself, despite his reputation.

Combefis’ singular talents and skill as a textual critic were by this point in his life firmly established. In addition to the usual front matter found in seventeenth-century printed books, Combefis’ works are prefaced also with poems celebrating the Dominican’s Herculean achievements and memorializing in verse the esteem in which Combefis was held especially by his confreres in the Order of Preachers. After the death of Jacques Goar in 1653, it was Combefis who went on to complete Goar's unfinished first edition of the Chronographia of Theophanes the Confessor (1655), which covers the history of the Church and the Roman Empire from the years 284 to 813. At the end of his own life, Combefis would mirror the fate of Goar (and indeed Theophanes himself), leaving behind an unfinished edition of ‘Theophanes Continuatus,’ the collection of writings that continue the Chronographia from 813 to 961. Combefis’ work on these sources serves to emphasize the breadth of his learning and interests, which was not limited to dogmatic theology, but which encompassed a wide range of authors and texts, across a broad spectrum of theological genres.

Patristics, Rue Saint-Honoré, Paris, Combefis
The Rue Saint-Honoré today

At the time that he flourished as a scholar and man of letters under the Bourbon kings of France, Combefis was by no means alone in his publication of patristic and Byzantine texts. The humanism and learning that flourished in the Early Modern period produced other eminent scholars, such as Combefis’ older contemporary, the Jesuit Jacques Sirmond. Sirmond, too, would be remembered for his editions of early Christian and Medieval texts. But even his production did not equal that of Combefis. The Dominican’s reputation as a distinguished intellectual spread quickly during his own lifetime, and the value of his work was appreciated by both fellow scholars and the ecclesiastical authorities.[4] At a time when Europe was positively buzzing with intellectual and academic activity, with new ideas, and with the proliferation of printed books, Combefis stood out as one of the preeminent scholars of his day. His work was especially important in light of the religious turmoil and controversy that continued to unsettle Western Europe, exacerbated by the circulation of tracts, treatises, and volumes on the history of the Church, the reception of apostolic tradition and praxis, and the theology of the earliest Christians.[6 As one of the most productive scholars of highly valued primary sources and texts, Combefis was both widely respected and admired by intellectuals and churchmen alike. At the age of 50, Combefis was assigned an unprecedented annual salary of 500 French pounds, eventually raised to 1000, to support his labors and subsidize his literary production, so critical to the needs of the period.

In 1662, Combefis published yet another important monument of early patristic scholarship, the Bibliotheca patrum concionatoria, in eight volumes (see vol. 1 here). This work, like the Novum auctarium, is intended to serve as a kind of commentary or extended catena on the liturgical year. It is organized across its numerous volumes according to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar and contains the writings of both Greek and Latin Fathers as well as Medieval, Scholastic, and Byzantine authors. It features the writings of Aelred, Ambrose, Anastasius Bibliothecarius, Anastasios of Sinai, Anselm, Bernard, St Ephrem the Syrian, Euthymios Zygabenos, George of Nicomedia, Heyschios, John Geometres, Manuel Kalekas,h Nikephoros Kallistos, Peter of Cluny, Philo of Alexandria, and many others. One can only imagine the utility of such a diverse and wide-ranging collection for pastors, preachers, and students of theology eager to unpack the Gospel lessons on any given day of the liturgical year.

Ten years later, in 1672, Combefis published his updated Auctarium novissimum bibliothecae Graecorum patrum, 2 vols. (available here). Like the Novum auctarium, and like the Bibliotheca concioniatoria, this compendium contained a very wide range of texts from the Greek theological tradition, including authors from Josephus, Clement, and Didymus the Blind, to Photios of Constantinople and Gregory Palamas.[7]

In 1675, Combefis published one of his most important and enduring works, a groundbreaking two-volume edition of the Opera of St Maximos the Confessor.[8] These editions (available here) would later be reprinted in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, vols. 90 and 91, standing for nearly two hundred years as the authoritative edition of St Maximos’s writings.

In 1679, Combefis added to his already rich legacy by publishing a highly-acclaimed two-volume edition of the writings of St Basil the Great. These would remain the standard edition of the great Cappadocian Father until the famous Maurist edition some forty years later.

Sadly, Combefis died before he could publish his third volume of St Maximos’s Opera, which contained the Ambigua, most of which would remain unavailable in print until 1857.[9] Although he had in fact completed the third volume, the eminent patrologist died before it could be sent to the publisher, and it was afterwards lost among his personal effects. Combefis also left unfinished editions of Gregory Nazianzen as well as the aforementioned ‘Theophanes Continuatus.’

Main Reading Room of the National Library of France

Combefis died in 1679 at the age of 74, having devoted more than half of his entire life to the study of manuscripts and the dissemination of patristic texts in printed editions. Prodigious in his efforts, he edited the writings of dozens of authors from the Hellenistic period to the Middle Ages and Late Byzantium, furnishing them with competent translations that made these texts accessible to scholars for generations to come. An accomplished intellectual in an era marked by some of history’s most memorable intellectual achievements, this humble scholar remains among the most important figures in the history of patristic studies. Those of us who are able to read the Fathers today, whether in the original languages or in translation, remain indebted to Combefis, who continues to stand out as one of the most accomplished scholars in the history of modern Europe.


[1] Combefis belonged to the reforming ‘Congregation of St Louis,’ the same Congregation as the famous John of St Thomas (d. 1644). For an approachable overview of the Dominican reform movement, see William A. Hinnebusch, The Dominicans: A Short History (New York: Alba House, 1975), particularly chaps. 6-8. (We are grateful to Fr Esteban Vázquez for this reference.)

[2] Combefis defended the authenticity of the Life of Basil, which, among other things, memorializes the legendary encounter between Basil of Caesarea and Ephrem the Syrian. [3] Modern scholarship has determined that the principal author of these scholia was John of Skythopolis, to which Maximos the Confessor later contributed a number of his own scholia.

[4] Le Père François was especially known for his editions of St John Chrysostom. He produced first editions of the De educandis liberis and De inani gloria, and a number of other hitherto unpublished texts. [5] See Barbara B. Diefendorf, Planting the Cross: Catholic Reform and Renewal in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), particularly chap. 4, on “Battling Demons to Propagate Reform: Sébastien Michaëlis and the Dominicans of Occitanie.” Michaëlis was, incidentally, the founder of Combefis’ Convent of the Annunciation.

[6] This was the first time the writings of Manuel Kalekas, himself a Dominican, had appeared in print. Kalekas, a disciple of Demetrios Kydones, was a Greek who opposed the Palamite authorities in Constantinople and rejected their theology in favor of Thomism. [7] Among the texts of the Palamite controversy included in this volume are the Tomos of the Synod of 1351, which Combefis calls “Pseudosynodus Palamitarum” (vol. II, p. 135); the De essentia et operatione of Manuel Kalekas; Kalekas, On the Catholic Faith; Palamas, Homilies 34-35, on the Transfiguration; and the first edition of John Kyparissiotes, Palamicarum transgressionum sermones. [8] See Bart Janssens, “François Combefis and the Edition of Maximus the Confessor’s Complete Works,” Analecta Bollandiana 119.2 (2001): 357-62; Claudio Moreschini, “L’edizione inedita degli ‘Ambigua ad Iohannem’ di Massimo il Confessore ad opera di Francesco Combefis,” in Editiones principes delle opere dei padri greci e latini : atti del convegno di studi della Società internazionale per lo studio del Medioevo latino, Certosa del Galluzzo, Firenze, 24-25 ottobre 2003 2006, ed. Mariarosa Cortesi (Florence: Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2006), 163-78. [9] The seventeenth-century edition of Thomas Gale, Joannis Scoti Erigenae de Divisione Naturae libri quinque diu desiderati. Accedit Appendix ex Ambiguis S. Maximi Graece et Latine (Oxford, 1681), contained only Amb. 1-10.3.

**For a complete overview of Combefis' bibliographical output, click here.


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