Selection from Jean Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, The Person and His Work

Trans. Robert Royal, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 241-242.


Bartholomew of Capua, recounting the way in which Thomas had organized his days, reports that after having celebrated Mass and given his course, 'he began writing and dictating to several secretaries.' Tocco [another biographer] also echoes the same fact that he claims to have learned from the 'true relation of his socius, from his students and his secretaries.' According to these witnesses, the master 'dictated at the same time on diverse subjects to three secretaries and sometimes four.' Tocco continues with an anecdote from Thomas's secretary (scriptor suus) Evan Garvit, a Breton from the diocese of Tréguier, according to whom 'after dictating to him and to two other secretaries that he [Thomas] had, sitting to rest for a bit, he fell asleep and continued dictating even while sleeping.' Whatever interpretation should be given to this strange way of dictating, the story is rich in information: we would retain from it another testimony to a multiplicity of simultaneous secretaries, of whom one, the secretary named, was a secular cleric. But we also see Thomas's weariness.

Simultaneous dictation to several secretaries is not unknown in history. The fact is reported of Caesar and of Napoleon. In our day, we are not astonished to see chess players able to play several games simultaneously. Examples of this kind doubtless help us to understand something of what may have happened in Thomas's case. His legendary abstractio mentis was then the indispensable condition to carry out all these works. But we are also led to think he had established a real organization and a well thought out method to speed up his work. We glimpse it in the composition of the Catena aurea and the considerable documentary research that it presupposes. We approach even closer to it with the De veritate--where the files Thomas used are mentioned. And we touch it with our finger, so to speak, with the Tabula Libri Ethicorum, which we have, almost in the rough state of the work of the secretaries, prior to the master's revision.