Rehabilitation for Forgotten Frick

When he was not at the blackboard, Carl Frick, a provincial German schoolteacher, studied the tangled world of Late Antique chronography. In 1892 he published Chronica Minora. This book was denoted volume one on the title page, indicating it was planned as the start of a series, but there was never any follow-up.

In a field where three celebrity scholars were at work, Frick (1848-?) was at a disadvantage, working without a place in the academic mill. He had the added misfortune to bring out the first volume in the same year as editions of chronica were also published by the legal historian Theodor Mommsen and by Paul de Lagarde.

Of Mommsen, the most eminent scholar in Germany in his own lifetime, and Lagarde, an unpleasant anti-Semite, we know a great deal. The story of another key scholar of chronography, Heinrich Gelzer, was recovered by Martin Wallraff in a book article in 2006. Frick however was largely forgotten.

Even the German national bibliography research unit with its vast documentary resources seems to have lost Chronica Minora and is apparently not aware of his date of death. One might note that here in Germany's second city, there appears to be only a single copy of Frick's main work in any Hamburg library today.

This week, Richard Burgess, the most eminent contemporary historian of Late Antique chronography, placed online an article which goes a considerable way to rehabilitating Frick and his achievements. The article seems to have been issued in print last month in the journal Traditio and is now also available via Burgess' repository on Academia.edu.
Professor Burgess's article acutely dissects a mysterious document, the Excerpta Latina Barbari, which forms codex Paris. Lat. 4884, now digitized at the BNF website (Catalog). He backs the BNF catalogers' view that it dates from about 780 CE, making it about a century later than supposed by some other authors, and that it was made at Corbie in France as a "perfect replica" (in Latin translation) of a "mass-produced" Greek codex which is now lost but was then in the possession of Bishop George of Amiens. His principal thrust is an argument, which is very much in the Frick tradition, in mitigation of the translator's so-called barbarian aptitude and a robust rejection of two recent alternative theses about the Excerpta from Benjamin Garstad and Pier Franco Beatrice.

Frick, who probably did not even see this Latin manuscript in Paris, tells us he borrowed in 1883 a sixteenth-century handwritten copy by Joseph Justus Scaliger from the Hamburg State Library. (This was in the day when the postman still brought thousand-year-old manuscripts to scholars' front doors.) Frick did not edit the text anew: he simply copied from a predecessor. But he had the creative idea of drafting up his own Greek version of the document. This was a central feature of Chronica Minora.

Burgess calls this (note 2) "still the most important study, which includes a surprisingly useful and insightful back-translation into Greek on facing pages" and praises (note 69) the "sensible comments of Frick in defense of the translator, whose Latin he says is no worse than that of Gregory of Tours (sixth century) or Virgilius Maro grammaticus (seventh century)." He also ridicules (note 10) Mommsen's claim to have personally examined the Paris manuscript, suggesting the polymath instead "had a student transcribe Schoene's text and add the entry numbers (for even they suffer from corruptions)." In conclusion he states:
Carl Frick's 1892 introduction and edition should have resulted in an intensified study of the Chron. Scal. But the earlier appearance that year of Theodor[e] Mommsen's own Chronica minora volume in the massive and authoritative Monumenta Germaniae Historica series, which has never gone out of print, meant that Frick's volume one was the last of the series, went out of print, and was on the whole forgotten ..." (page 43)
My own interest in chronography studies grew from the possibility that the evolution of chronicles might provide a key to date a fifth-century historical diagram, the Great Stemma, and a chronological text of perhaps the sixth century, the Ordo Annorum Mundi, which is transmitted with it. The Excerpta, or Chronographia Scaligeriana, as Burgess proposes it should be called, is not of direct assistance, since it is of a later date (Burgess proposes the final version in Greek cannot have dated any earlier than the 530s). However the chronographia comes from the same general culture as the Great Stemma and Liber Genealogus, where the uncanonical Protevangelium of James was regarded as a source of valid historical information.

In his volume, Frick has nothing to say about either the Great Stemma (imperfectly edited by me) or the Ordo Annorum Mundi (soon to be published by Brepols) and we cannot know what he planned to include in any later volumes, since his project collapsed. One is naturally curious about deserving figures who die in obscurity, so I find it touching that Burgess has now elevated Frick above Mommsen in his assessment.

It is Frick's modesty and dogged work which makes him an appealing figure (see my previous post). Whether any of Frick's papers survive at Höxter, where he ran a well-provided school library, I do not know. I once emailed the school but got no reply. At least one of his Latin textbooks remained in use for a century.

In Frick's further defence, I would also stress that his employment as a schoolmaster (see his Prussian education ministry file) should not be taken as a sign that he had a markedly lower academic standing than his professorial contemporaries. We judge this from a 21st century perspective at our peril. He worked in schools in a period when secondary education attracted many superb scholars. The more conservative sort of German schoolteacher today still joins a union known as the Philologenverband. In the nineteenth century, many of its members really were philologists.

Teachers of Latin and Greek in Frick's day were often first-class scholars or writers, as I can attest from the example of my cousin John Henry Fowler, an Oxford graduate and talented writer who earning his living as a rather dour Bristol boarding-school master. But the profession has come down in the world. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD warned only last week that the demotion and reduced professionalism of teachers is the central problem in the steady decline of many western education systems.


Java Disaster in Florence

The digital library of 3,000-plus manuscripts at the Medicea Laurenziana Library in Florence was introduced on this blog as outstanding news three years ago. This year, disaster struck as hackers round the world exploited security vulnerabilities in Java software. Java's security had to be tightened to such a degree that the current plug-ins for browsers can no longer access the digital library in Florence.

This mess has been evident for several weeks. The library has just issued a notice about the problem which offers little solace other than a promise to act in "a short space of time" to achieve a permanent solution. The notice (digitally dated December 6) blames "security controls in the latest version of the Java interpreter that no longer allow the execution of our viewer."

The interim solution proposed is not satisfactory: uninstalling your current Java version and downgrading to the old low-security version, SE 6, which is "still compatible with our application".

Oracle warns that this version is "not recommended for use" and is reserved for developers and administrators doing debugging. Running an unsafe Java version would, in my view, only be feasible if you were to reserve a dedicated computer to visit the Laurentian site alone. Otherwise the risk would be too great of catching a virus while the PC was used to visit other parts of the internet. And who has computers to spare?