Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.16

Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms. Translated and Annotated by P.G. Walsh. 2 vols. Volume I: Psalms 1-50 [Psalms 1-51 (50)]. Volume II: Psalms 51-100 [Psalms 52 (51)-101 (100)]. Ancient Christian Writers Nos. 51-52. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990-1991. ISBN 0-8091-0441-5 (v. 1); 0-8091-0444-X (v. 2).

Reviewed by James W. Halporn, Indiana University.

The comment by Ernst Robert Curtius in his influential European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages that Cassiodorus' commentary on the Psalms is the richest of his works has made the absence of any translation into a modern language most surprising.1 This work of Walsh will help many medievalists understand what Curtius meant, and makes available in English the only complete Latin commentary from antiquity.

The translation is accompanied by a brief but informative preface. As Walsh states, "Cassiodorus deploys the psalms not only for the purposes of instruction in theology and hermeneutics, but also to inculcate a general education in eloquence. In this sense his later work, the Institutiones, with its two books on Christian learning and secular knowledge respectively, can be seen to correspond with the Expositio Psalmorum as theory to practice, as a theoretical outline of the discipline of Christian eloquence for which the psalm-commentary serves as the ideal text" (14). Ursula Hahner's careful study which emphasizes how Cassiodorus treats each Psalm like an ancient oration would have been a great help to Walsh, both in understanding the structure of the work and the art of the commentary itself. The editorial decision, for such I assume it was, not to include the marginal "notae" which Cassiodorus attached to his work as a guide to using the commentary, is unfortunate. It creates for the reader a totally incorrect perception of the organization and method of this kind of ancient commentary. I also regret the lack of specific references in the running-heads.

The notes accompanying the translation are meagre, most of them referring to Biblical passages cited in the commentary. The Psalm text itself is the Douai-Rheims translation adjusted to fit the context and thrust of Cassiodorus' annotations. There is a set of appendices in the first volume: variations in the citations of the Latin text of various Psalms (it is unclear what this list is doing here); rhetorical devices mentioned by Cassiodorus; etymologies offered by Cassiodorus (most of them reflecting ancient eruditio); figures of speech and thought referred to (referenced in the notes to Martin). Besides the index to the Biblical passages cited, there are two disappointing indices to authors, ancient and modern, and a general one, covering a variety of topics that deserved fuller treatment.

The textbook nature of the work and the prolix way in which Cassiodorus pursues his aims present challenges to any translator to make the work inviting. Walsh tackles this labor with considerable skill. Some of that quality of Cassiodorus, which I have called his talent as a creator of mosaic, appears. Had the notes been fuller, the reader could have seen how Cassiodorus takes a bit of grammatical lore from Marius Victorinus, a bit of Rufinus's translation of a sermon of Origen, and pieces of Augustine and Jerome and builds it all into a new and coherent structure.2


  • [1] Works Cited:
    Courcelle, P., Late Latin Writers and their Greek Sources. Trans. H.E. Wedeck. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969.
    Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Trans. W. R. Trask. London: RKP, 1953.
    Hahner, U. Cassiodors Psalmenkommentar: Sprachliche Untersuchungen. Munich: Arbeo-Gesellschaft, 1973.
    Halporn, J.W. "Methods of Reference in Cassiodorus." Journal of Library History 16.1 (1981): pp. 71-91.
    Halporn, J.W. "Pandectes, Pandecta, and the Cassiodorian Commentary on the Psalms." Revue Benedictine 90 (1980): pp. 290-300.
    Martin, J. Antike Rhetorik. Munich: Beck, 1974.
  • [2] In an undertaking of this size, there are bound to be errors. In Psalm 21.7 there is a sentence missing in the translation. Walsh's statement that "The Institutiones provide us with a detailed catalogue of the manuscripts contained in the monastic library at Vivarium," for which he cites P. Courcelle as his authority is patently untrue. Courcelle makes no such statement on the page Walsh refers to, nor does he anywhere else. As I have said ("Methods of Reference"), Cassiodorus is more a collection development librarian than a cataloguer. Institutiones Book 1 mentions books that ought to be available to the Christian scholar, some of which happen to be to be available to the Christian scholar, some of which happen to be in Cassiodorus' collection. At Psalm 86.[1] Cassiodorus could hardly have said a certain writer (quidam) called Josephus "the buffoon of the Jews (vernaculus Iudaeorum)." Walsh has been misled by the OLD secondary meaning of vernaculus. The quidam referred to by Cassiodorus, as I pointed out in my study of this passage ("Pandectes"), is Jerome in one of his letters, and the meaning of vernaculus is "native-born." The shade of Cassiodorus, who called Josephus "paene secundus Livius" (Instit. 1.17.1), would be pained.