Asteriscos et obelos suis locis restitui – the revision of the Psalter during the Carolingian Renaissance

The Carolingian period is chiefly remembered as a period of renovatio. In joint cooperation, the Carolingian dynasty and intellectual elites saw to revision of a number of practices and texts. Some of the artifacts of these reforms and their agents are well-known. There is Paul the Deacon and his Homiliary, which provided a model sequence of sermons for the whole year; there is Alcuin and his revised Bible, which became the version disseminated by the scriptorium of Tours; there is Benedict of Aniane and his reform of monastic life which was to be organized in accordance with the Rule of Benedict. Then, there was the Caroline minuscule, which supplanted many local variants of script in regions that were controlled by Carolingians, the reform of the liturgy, of schooling and of many other areas of life. Some of the components of the Carolingian renovatio, however, have not been as well-researched. This piece is concerned with one of such less familiar area of the Carolingian Renaissance, the revision of the Psalter in accordance with the rules of the Classical textual criticism.

I have had the pleasure to present my thoughts on this matter recently at the International Medieval Congress at the Leeds University and I hope you are going to enjoy my ‘narrative’ as much as those who were there.

If there is to be anything added to my talk, as a sort of a postscript, it is that neither the revision of the Psalter nor any other of the elements of the Carolingian Renaissance mentioned above, were planned and enforced centrally, contrary to what some older textbook might claim. Rather, their spread and success should be seen as a result of superior infrastructure and socio-economic as well as political conditions, which allowed for quick dissemination of innovations. The revised Psalter, which made its way into the Tours Bible, is a good example of this. We will never know why Alcuin chose the Gallican Psalter as the text version of the Book of Psalms in his revised Bible, and it is ultimately not that important. What matters is that once this decision was made, and once Alcuin’s pupil Fridugisius further decided to incorporate the revised Gallican Psalter into the Tours pandect Bibles, it was thanks to the output of the scriptorium of Tours and the network of connections between the Abbey of St. Martin and other monastic centers that made this innovation successful on a grand scale. If Alcuin’s choice fell on another text version of the Book of Psalms – as was the case with Theodulf of Orleans, who, too, worked on a revision of the Bible in roughly the same time as Alcuin and whose preferences went to the Psalter Iuxta Hebraeos – the narrative about the revision of the Psalter in the Carolingian period would look differently.

The question that remains is to what extent the different Carolingian intellectual communities, which accepted the innovations in the period, acted on a small scale for purely pragmatic reasons, unaware of and uninterested in the global picture and to what extent they might have pursued a single vision even though not necessarily imposed on them centrally. Or rather, the question is to where on the scale from the micro- to macro-agency the individual communities stood and with respect to what particular innovations (e.g. would the revised Psalter accepted in a community with the same enthusiasm – or any at all – as the reforms of the Benedict of Aniane and for the same reasons?). We tend to recognize the complex fabric of changes we see in the Carolingian period as a single whole and in a structured way, but this might be due to our cognitive propensity to seek patterns and to think in terms of agents and motives. The Carolingian communities might be in some respects akin to ants and bees. It is now recognized that the anthills and beehives emerge without central organization or planning, but are rather a natural result of the interaction between the members of the community, each capable of communicating with his ‘neighbours’, but none having a larger picture or a notion of a central organization. It seems that neither Florus of Lyon nor the Milanese reviser worked on an order of their superiors, but rather acted independently when they revised the Gallicanum. So did other revisers, whose names are not known and who did not leave behind any record explaining their motives. We may speculate whether men like Alcuin or Fridugisius, both close to the court, might have had different reasons for the revision from scholars such as Florus of Lyon or the reviser from Milan. In any case, the differences between the individual revised Psalters indicate that there was no singular model for revision, but rather than in several different times and at several different places, revision was undertaken from locally available books.

Prezi Presentation (which unfortunately does not work in all browsers correctly, sorry)


Evina Steinova

I am currently a PhD at Huygens ING/Utrecht University in the Netherlands. My PhD project is concerned with information management strategies in the Carolingian period, or else what techniques the Carolignians developed, had available or improved on when it came to processing texts. My research is part of a project focusing on marginalia in the Carolingian manuscripts. In addition, I am working (as my time allows) on medieval Jewish history and Judeo-Christian dialogue (or conflict), and from time to time on early medieval Christian apocrypha.

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