Genesis and Responsories: A Concise Summary

In five previous posts, I have been investigating the relationship between responsories and the continuous reading of Scripture as it appears in the early medieval monastic Night Office.

I began with Ælfric’s legislation in the Letter to the Monks at Eynsham concerning the beginning of the continuous reading cycle:

“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)

So—what exactly do we find if we follow his advice and find out “what is found in the antiphoner”? I selected a fairly typical Benedictine antiphoner contemporary with Ælfric, the St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 390.

I found that in the six Sundays contained within the period allotted by Ælfric to Genesis, two of them focused on the start of liturgical seasons (Septuagesima and Quadragesima/Lent 1); the other four did indeed provide an interpretive framework for the Genesis text.

Each Sunday tended to group around a patriarch or two in the following fashion:

It’s worth noting that the grand majority of the responsories are taken directly from Scripture. Or—perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they are composed largely from Scriptural materials. For rarely is a verse utilized “as is”; bits of verses are stitched into one another to create a larger Scriptural pastiche which is typically literally faithful to its source but the very act of recomposition enables it to say something other and something more than the original words in the original context.

While individual verses and verse clusters are chosen from these narratives they are in no way chosen at random. They have been carefully chosen and the selections fit together into a precis of the narrative shaped by the liturgists’ own interpretations of the text. For instance, we note that the responsories focus fundamentally on the patriarchs. Obedience seems to be a central theme. The Fall narrative is shaped around it to the point of added in extrabiblical language. Doing so forms a parallel with authentic biblical language praising obedience in the Abraham narrative. Other themes also run through the selections; blessing in particular seems a predominate motif.  I’m sure further study would reveal others.

The upshot here is that when we consider early medieval materials that interact with, summarize or communicate Scripture—especially in broad narrative sweeps—it makes sense to pay attention to the responsories used to interpret those texts when they appear within the monastic Night Office.

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2 comments so far

  1. swain on

    Ya oughta work this up for publication…ahem.

  2. derekolsen on

    Heh, heh… 😉

    It was all supposed to be material for ch. 3 (and is initial prep for my K’zoo paper as well). But I may have just finished 3 without it… We’ll see how it finally turns out.


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