BMCR 2013.02.07

One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 18

, , One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 18. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012. ISBN9780674057739 $29.99.

This volume of Latin hymns dating from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries marks a departure for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML), the fastest growing and most exciting collection of medieval primary source texts in Latin, Byzantine Greek and Old English with facing page English translations. In the early volumes of this series, which commenced publication in 2010, the editors faced the challenge of presenting widely available medieval texts, like Beowulf and The Rule of Benedict, in new and interesting ways. In most cases, they succeeded admirably by making explicit reference to the manuscript contexts of these well-known works. Thus, the DOML Beowulf volume presented the entire contents of the sole manuscript that preserves this well-known Old English poem (British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv), while the DOML Rule of Benedict volume offered a transcription of the most important Carolingian exemplar of this seminal monastic text (St. Gall 914) alongside two ninth-century letters that discuss the reception of this manuscript by the monks of Reichenau who believed that they had access to an autograph copy of the Rule sent to Charlemagne by Paul the Deacon. The volume under review does not follow this approach. Instead, it presents a collection of one hundred Christian hymns composed over the span of a millennium, from the time of Ambrose, “the great pioneer of Latin hymnody,” (p. viii), to the very different historical milieu of Thomas Aquinas, whose hymns for the Feast of Corpus Christi represent “[t]he grand climax of the medieval Latin hymn” (p. xix).

Since One Hundred Latin Hymns is a collection of representative examples of a particular genre of Christian devotional poetry rather than an edition of a single source, it is useful to survey its contents and explain the editors’ principles of exclusion. The volume begins with fourteen hymns (nos. 1-14) by Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), who according to Augustine composed many moving hymns for antiphonal singing “according to the customs of the East.” There follows another early hymn by an anonymous imitator of Ambrose (no. 15), three long hymns (nos. 16-18) by Prudentius (d. 410), and another (no. 19) by Sedulius, the fifth-century author of the Carmen Paschale. The volume continues with two hymns (nos. 20-21) by Venantius Fortunatus (d. 610), written to celebrate the arrival of a relic of the True Cross to the city of Poitiers, followed by thirteen poems (nos. 22-35) from the Old Hymnal, a sixth- century collection of hymns for the monastic offices, major feast days and in praise of saints and martyrs, and twenty-eight poems (nos. 36-63) from the New Hymnal, which replaced the Old Hymnal throughout most of Europe (except at the city of Milan) by the tenth century. Next follow two hymns from early England (nos. 64-65) attributed to Columba (d. 597) and Bede (d. 735) and a block of eight anonymous hymns from this same period (nos. 66-73), which do not appear in the Old or New Hymnals and show the tenacity of the style instituted by Ambrose. The next two hymns have Carolingian provenance with attributions to Theodulf of Orleans (no. 74) and Hrabanus Maurus (no. 75 – the famous Veni, creator Spiritus). The book concludes with hymns by two lesser known poets of the eleventh century, Wipo (no. 76) and Aimar of Le Puy (no. 77), thirteen works by the controversial schoolmaster Peter Abelard (nos. 78-90), “[t]he most original and powerful talent among the hymn writers of the twelfth century” (p. xvii), and ten more hymns (nos. 91-100) composed primarily for liturgical feasts by late medieval authors like Philip the Chancellor, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. As this summary indicates, the volume is weighted heavily to works composed in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, with roughly three-quarters of the contents dating from the Carolingian period or earlier. Poetic virtuosity seems to be the editors’ primary motivation for the inclusion of these particular hymns. For instance, the twelve hymns attributed to Ennodius (d. 521) are excluded on the grounds that they are “labored or primitive” (p. xi). Similarly, the ten hymns composed by Alcuin of York (d. 804) did not merit inclusion because “[they] have an academic ring which detracts from their impact” (p. xiv).

A brief, but informative, introduction prefaces this impressive collection of Latin hymns. Here we learn that hymns had been popular as a medium of public devotion in the Greek East during the earliest centuries of Christianity, as witnessed by Pliny’s letter to Trajan. Tertullian and Cyprian provide early evidence for their use in the Latin-speaking provinces of the western Empire, where in the late fourth century Ambrose inaugurated a new age of Latin hymnody inspired by Greek models. The introduction also makes it clear that hymns could appear in a wide array of metrical guises (elegiac couplets, iambic hexameters, etc.) and serve a variety of functions as doctrinal statements aimed to thwart the advance of heresies, long devotional poems intended for private reading and reflection, triumphal acclaims to welcome the arrival of relics or acknowledge the power of the saints, and soaring expressions of an individual’s faith in the saving power of Christ. The translations accompanying the Latin texts in this volume “do not reproduce the Latin rhyme-schemes, but imitate the Latin meters faithfully” (p. xxi). The translations are generally clear and accurate, but sometimes inelegant when read aloud, especially when the translator relies on the passive voice in English to capture the Latin meter. See, for example, the rendering of Fugit perustus carnifex / suisque cedit ignibus as “The executioner is scorched / does flee and from his fires retreat” in the last stanza of Ambrose’s hymn in praise of Saint Lawrence (no. 8, pp. 40-41).

The scholarly value of this volume lies primarily in the ample notes to the texts and translations that conclude the book. Here the editors have presented a learned summary of the authorship, structure and traditional use of each hymn in the history of Christian worship, complete with a line-by-line commentary that identifies literary sources and works out issues of grammar and meaning, with ample reference to specialized secondary literature. This commentary is particularly good at pointing out the possible pagan influences on the earliest of these Christian hymns, thereby anchoring them properly in their late antique cultural setting. For instance, Ambrose’s hymn to the virgin saint Agnes (no. 8) stresses her concern for modesty while she was persecuted: Nam veste se totam tegens, / curam pudoris praestitit / ne quis retectam cerneret. (p. 24). Noting that Ambrose was “a good Greek scholar,” the editors suggest that the bishop modeled this stanza on Euripides’ account of the sacrifice of Polyxena in his tragedy Hecuba or perhaps more likely from the recasting of this episode by Ovid in the Metamorphoses (p. 393). Similarly, we learn that the triple invocation ( Te…te…te) repeated in an anonymous hymn from the time of Ambrose (no. 15) probably derived from the Psalms, but may also echo pagan hymns that employed similar formulae (p. 402, where the examples of Catullus and Lucretius are cited).

On the whole, this is a very useful volume for anyone interested in the history of Latin Christian hymnody in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. While it marks a departure from earlier volumes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library by presenting examples on an important genre over the course of a millennium rather than focusing on a specific text, the approach is successful, in no small part due to the expertise of the editors who have provided such extensive commentary on each of the hymns.