Download and Read: Augustine’s Confessions Online

For this exercise I wanted to choose something with a long and complex history that would be relevant to my interests, but which also had enough cultural significance to be of interest to a wider audience.  I settled on Augustine’s Confessions, his autobiographical masterpiece written at the end of the 4th century, in which he recounts his early life and conversion to Christianity.  As with any work written before the age of print, the Confessions came to life and first circulated in manuscript form (examples of which can also be found online, for example this digitized microfilm of Troyes, Bibl. mun., 473, and this digital facisimile of a Villanova MS). The work made its way into print at an early date, and was translated from the original Latin into English at least as early as the first half of the 17th century.  Perhaps the most accessible edition of the Latin text is that in the Patrologia Latina (32.659 ff.). The PL — the publication of which in the mid-19th century has to be one of the most successful acts of serial plagiarism ever perpetrated — retains its relevance today as a kind of least common denominator of editions. But as you might expect, over the years there have been numerous editions of the text, not to mention translations into various languages. Not knowing what other sorts of exercises might be in store in the coming weeks for the texts we choose to investigate, I decided to focus my efforts on the English versions of the Confessions.  And rather than attempting to compile a comprehensive survey of all the various versions that might be out there on the web, for the purpose of this exercise I decided not to labor too much over locating every available version and instead just to approach each of the four search interfaces with some common terms (viz., author: Augustine; title: Confessions; and where possible limiting the results to English language hits available in full text), and see what each one returned.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg returns just four hits in response to a search on “Augustine Confessions”, including one hit each of the English and the Latin text, as well as two anthologies that contain excerpts from the text.  Gutenberg’s English text (available here) was first released in 2002, and is a version of the translation of Edward Pusey from the Library of the Fathers series, a series of translations of patristic texts published in the 19th century by members of the Oxford Movement of High-Church Anglicanism. This is an influential translation, and it will make repeated appearances below.  The text is available in six formats: HTML, ePub, Kindle, Plucker, QiOO, and plain text (UTF-8).  The HTML version is XHTML, and seems to have been carefully proofed. This version also contains some useful additional encoding such as paragraph numbering.  The text can be read online, or downloaded in any of the six available formats. It is in the public domain, and is here released under a Project Gutenberg license, which allows the end-user to use the text for just about any non-commercial purpose.  There isn’t any obvious way to mark up or otherwise correct the text and re-submit it back to the project.

Google Books

Searching Google Books using the terms described above returns 25 hits when limited to those available in full, ranging in date from 1770 to 1912.  Closer examination reveals that many of these 25 are in fact duplicates, and others are irrelevant volumes of a multi-volume series (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF]), only one volume of which contains the text under investigation.  Among the ‘good’ hits are a copy from the Loeb Classical Library; a reprint of Pusey’s translation in a series called the Harvard Classical Texts; and a translation by Charles Pilkington in the aforementioned NPNF series.  The volume edited by Temple Scott (1900), which was scanned from a Harvard copy, is in fact a re-issue of Pusey’s translation, while the translation by W. H. Hutchings, scanned from a copy in the Bodleian, purports to be a new translation, albeit of only ten books rather than the full text’s thirteen (the final three books of the Confessions, more philosophical than autobiographical, are sometimes left out). There are a number of other versions available on Google besides these.  The volumes on Google are available in a variety of formats both directly on Google books and through the Google eBook feature, including several formats designed for e-readers and for online reading.  While the quality of those that rely on page images is generally good, the OCR versions remain quite error-laden.  For example, this passage chosen more or less at random: “$e tnbefff$s against tTie SOone of enucatinp; f&e BUT woe to thee, thou torrent of human custom!” (p. 23).  If one examines the page-images it is immediately apparent why the text is so corrupt in the first half of the passage — it is an epigram printed in a gothic font. But because of anomalies like this, the poor quality of the OCR would make it difficult and dangerous to use Google’s text for any serious purpose (over and above the fact that there is no obvious easy way to download the entire book in plain text format). There are some nice features of the Google reader such as the ability to create notes and mark up the text with highlighting in different colors. Google’s terms of service would seem to allow download and reuse of their content in a variety of forms.

Internet Archive

Perhaps the most interesting and unique offering at the Internet Archive is the very first one among the initial hits: a complete audio book from Librivox.  The experience of listening to the Confessions read aloud probably more closely approximates how the text was experienced through much of its early history, when even private reading was often done aloud, than many of the printed versions.  Many of the versions available on IA are copies of books digitized by Google. Pusey’s and Pilkington’s translations are here, but also a version of the text translated into Hebrew that I found on no other site. The IA’s versions are available for free download in a variety of formats, including formats for various e-readers, as a PDF, and as a single plain text file.  Unfortunately, the plain text version is full of OCR errors (not least the common failure to segregate headers, footnotes, and main text), and would require significant clean up to be useful for any serious purpose.  Many of the IA books are listed as not in copyright or with no known copyright restrictions, and can be downloaded freely in various formats.  In addition, descriptive information about the scanned books can be contributed by users through, and problems can be reported to IA through a link on their site.  IA’s online reader is perhaps the best interface of any of the available online readers.

Hathi Trust

Finally, a search of the Hathi Trust using the same terms described above returns 19 hits, including many of the same translations available via Google (in fact, the watermarks reveal that many of these are in fact Google’s scans). As one might expect, the metadata for Hathi Trust books are generally fuller and more precise than Google’s. Another useful feature is the ability to download citation information. Plain text is available, but only on a page-by-page basis, and even the PDF download of full book in the public domain requires authentication.  According to the access and use policy, the Google-digitized books are requested not to be used for commercial purposes or re-hosted, but otherwise are free for use for non-commercial, educational purposes.


In conclusion, I would note that the plain-text version of Pusey’s translation available through Project Gutenberg is probably the most useful of all the free online versions of the text, simply because of its flexibility.  None of the foregoing discussion takes into account the accuracy of either the translations or of the editions upon which they were based.

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