Genesis and the Responsories

No posts in way too long—time for some substance.

My central premise here is that Scripture interpretation in the early medieval period is fundamentally a liturgical event. To try and look at early medieval materials without reference to the liturgy and the interpretive lenses it puts on Scripture is a big mistake. Looking at EM sermons is great, but without a sense of the background, you’ll miss why certain interpretive choices were made and not others.

I’m looking today at Ælfric’s Letter to the Monks at Eynsham (LME) and his recommendations for how Scripture ought to be read in the Night Office. Remember, this is where monks would hear the whole of Scripture being read through each year (a goal Ælfric is quite explicit about in LME 78).

The first thing to notice is the immediate contextualization of Scripture. Each time Ælfric mentions a biblical book, it is placed in relation to two data-points: a liturgical season, and the responsories that are to be sung in relation to it. Thus you don’t get “it’s January 1st, let’s start at Genesis 1!” but rather:

“In Septuagesima we should read Genesis until mid-Lent and we sing the history ‘Alleluia: While it is present’ [Alleluia dum praesens est (CAO 6071)] first and for one day only, and for the week as a whole we sing the responsories from the psalms, ‘O how great is the multitude’ [Quam magna multitudo (CAO 7459)] and so forth. Then, in other weeks, we sing what is found in the antiphoner. But from mid-Lent we read Exodus and sing ‘The Lord said to Moses’…” (Christopher Jones, LME, 144-5)

There’s actually more focus on the correct responsories than on the text and this will become important in a moment. Glancing at the identified responsories, they don’t seem immediately relevant or interpretive of the Genesis texts. Alleluia dum praesens est is a responsory in praise of the word “Alleluia”, fitting as this day is the last time it will be sung until Easter.  Quam magna multitudo is taken directly from VgPs 30:20: “O how great is the multitude of thy sweetness, O Lord, which thou hast hidden for them that fear thee! Which thou hast wrought for them that hope in thee, in the sight of the sons of men.” (D-R)

But then we check out “what is found in the antiphoner…” Our task is, of course, complicated by the fact that we have no antiphoners from Anglo-Saxon England (Cf. Pfaff & Gneuss).  Thus we turn to a representative example of an EM antiphoner which just happens to be one of the most nicely written and important chant manuscripts in the world, the St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 390 written exactly contemporary with Ælfric, having been produced between 990 and 1000. It also just happens to be online…

So, Ælfric has given us the week of Septuagesima. Moving to the next Sunday, Sexagesima, we find the following responsories:

[Nocturn I]
In principio Deus creavit (CAO 6925):
R: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the Spirit of the Lord passed over the waters, and God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good.
V: Therefore the heavens and the earth were completed with all their adornments. And God saw…
Sources: a mash-up of Gen 1:1, 2b, 31a, 2:1.

In principio fecit Deus (CAO 6928 )
R: In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth, and he created upon it a man in his image and likeness.
V: Therefore God formed a man from the dirt of the earth and breathed into his form the breath of life. In his image…
Sources: a mash-up of Gen 1:1, 26a/27a, 2:7a.

Formavit igitur Dominus hominem (CAO 6739)
R: Therefore God formed a man from the dirt of the earth and breathed into his form the breath of life and a man with a living soul was made.
V: Therefore the heavens and the earth were completed with all their adornments. And a man…
Sources: Gen 2:7, 1.

[Nocturn II]
Tulit ergo Dominus hominem (CAO 7798 )
R: Then God took the man and placed him in the paradise of delight that he might work and keep it.
V: Therefore God formed a man from the dirt of the earth and placed him in paradise. That he might work…
Sources: Gen 2:15, 7a.

Dixit Dominus Deus: Non est bonum (CAO 6473)
R: God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. Let us make him a helper like himself.”
V: For none was found like to Adam, thus said God. “Let us make him…”
Sources: Gen 2:18, 20b.

(Next page…)

Immisit Dominus soporem (CAO 6883)
R: The Lord sent sleep upon Adam and took one of his ribs and God constructed with the rib he had taken from Adam a woman and led her to Adam so that he might see what he might call her. And he called her name Woman (Virago) because she was taken out of a man (de viro).
V: “Now this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” And he called her name…
Sources: Gen 2:21-23.

Dum deambularet Dominus (CAO 6537)
R: When the Lord was walking in paradise in the breeze of the evening, he called and said, “Adam, where are you?” “Lord, I heard your voice and hid myself.”
V: “Lord, I heard your sound and I feared, I beheld your works. And hid myself.”
Sources: Gen 3:8a, 9, 10.

[Nocturn III]
In sudore vultus (CAO 6937)
R: “In the sweat of your brow you will feed on your bread,” said the Lord to Adam. “When you work the ground it will not give you its fruits, but it will grow spines and thorns for you.”
V: “Because you obeyed the voice of your wife more than mine, cursed be the earth regarding your works. It will grow…”
Sources: Gen 3:19, 18, 17. With a theologically significant modification of 17 that introduces the concept of obedience.

Ecce Adam quasi (CAO 6937)
R: “Behold Adam has become as one of us, knowing good and evil. See that he does not by chance take from the tree of life and live forever.”
V: A Cherubim and a flaming sword that turns guarding the way to the tree of life. [Will] see that he does not…
Sources: Gen 3:22, 24b.

(Next page…)

Ubi est Abel (CAO 6937)
R: “Where is your brother Abel?” said the Lord to Cain. “I do not know, Lord, for am I my brother’s keeper?” And he said to him, “What have you done? Behold–the voice of the blood of your brother Abel calls to me from the earth.” V: Cursed be the earth regarding your works because it has opened its mouth and has received the blood of your brother from your hand. Behold–the voice of the blood…
Sources: Gen 4:9-11.

So–what we have here is a Scriptural pastiche that summarizes the story of Creation & Fall, hitting certain high points in order to accentuate certain themes. Others are absent entirely…

This is a narrativethat focuses upon three characters: God, Adam, and the earth. Eve gets a mention, but the heart of the story is that the man, who is the completeion and perfection of the created order, fell fundamentally through his disobedience. The fault is not that the woman took the fruit (though that’s part of it) but that Adam disobeyed. [Note that the exchange we tend to find most significant–Eve and the Serpent/Satan–does not appear and is not even referred to!] As a result of the human actions of Adam and Cain, the earth was cursed not once but twice.

I don’t know about you but I hear strongly here the main notes that Ælfric strikes in his many narrative summaries of Creation & Fall, particularly the disobedience of the created towards the Creator.

Remember, then, these are sung throughout the following week until a new set is picked up at Quinquagesima. That gives this narrative a bit of time to sink in and to form an interpretive frame through which the events of Genesis 1-4 will be remembered and shaped.

[Edit: oh yeah, don’t forget the Invitatory Antiphon, either: “Let us adore the Lord who made us…”]

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2 comments so far

  1. […] Sexagesima addresses the Creation & Fall narrative picking up specifically on the creation of the cosmos, Adam as the pinnacle of creation, Adam’s disobedience, and Cain’s murder of Abel. […]

  2. […] For reflections on the monastic reading of Genesis and Exodus as read through the Responsaries, see here. […]


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