Early Medieval Scripture Interpretation: Where it happened

Students of biblical interpretation often look in vain for new and exciting scriptural interpretation happening in the early medieval period. What they find are copies of patristic commentaries, florilegia of patristic passages, and sermons built out of quotations from patristic authors. Thus, they safely write-off the period, satisfied that no significant interpretation occurred from the end of the patristic age to the beginning of the Scholastic period.

The truth of the matter is that much new interpretation was being done—just not in the way that modern academics do it. Rather, the new interpretation was being produced for and through the liturgy. The early medieval liturgy—especially as embodied in places like Cluny and its daughter-houses—was an enormous body of work that varied from place to place and time to time requiring a mastery of complicated rules and interconnections. All of it was built around cycles of Scripture.

Speaking broadly, the interpretation found within the liturgy is deliberately underdetermined. That is, the liturgy makes and provides interpretive connections but rarely spells them out or attempts to tease out the full implications. Rather, those participating in the liturgies and living their way through the cycles were able to find and create meaning within the suggestions.

Because of the underdetermination, it is not a simple matter for a modern scholar to simply ask how a certain text or theme was interpreted in the early medieval eccelesial world. At the root we face the core problem that medievalists always have—sources. Liturgical practices were dependent on manuscripts, and while there are distinctive varieties of sacramentaries, antiphoners, missals, etc., the practices of any given church, cathedral, or monastery depended on the available books. Even when we can identify a book at a given place, the full set of materials for liturgies were spread across several books; it’s not just a matter of finding one book but many to attempt to reconstruct a full liturgy. Even if a set of representative or likely texts can be assembled, it takes a while to figure out the intricacies of how these sources actually fit together in practice. Only once these initial tasks have been completed can the recovery of the interpretation begin.

The fundamental mode of interpretation found within early medieval liturgy is juxtaposition. That is, bits are placed next to other bits. Meaning is found through figuring out how the bits connect. The most basic way this occurs is the case of a Scriptural antiphon. The psalms and Gospel canticles of the monastic offices were often bracketed or interspersed with a one-line passage from some other place in Scripture. The function of the antiphon was to give the set text—that is, the psalm or canticle—a certain spin, to highlight or foreground certain aspects of the text over others. The most complex and determined forms are found in the responsaries and hymns which tend to connect a particular biblical text with a liturgical season or event and to other biblical texts and themes. In between these two ends of the interpretive spectrum are other elements of the liturgy.

There’s much more to be said on this topic; these are just some initial reflections. I hope to say a bit more about how the liturgy interprets Scripture and to provide some concrete examples—but that will come later.


3 comments so far

  1. swain on

    What? Two posts in one day? What are you trying to do? Show us all up?

    I’m looking forward to your discussion….I’m curious about where you see interpretation taking place in liturgical texts. But see my post today for more.

  2. derekolsen on

    Nah, I thought I’d get some substantive material up before both of my readers went away… 🙂

    ?? Which post of yours today–at the Ruminate?

    Finding the interpretation at work is not an easy process for those of us who don’t live within monastic rhythms—but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Drawing these threads out and showing how they applied to Aelfric’s sermons may well be the most important part of my dissertation. I need to lay a little bit of groundwork here first so what I’m trying to show makes sense…

  3. swain on

    The one I intended to finish!!!!! Hopefully today

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