Category Archives: Damn Dissertation

Conceptual Reframing

I think I leaped a big hurdle this morning in terms of how my sermon chapters will be structured. I’ve been wrestling with some related problems namely, 1) how do I treat Æ’s sermons as texts in their own right yet 2) honor their indebtedness to their sources without 3) perpetuating one of the views I want to avoid, that he and other early medieval preachers are just plagiarists. What I came to this morning is the realization of how the paradigms are functioning. We look at one of Æ’s sermons and see that he has heavily relied on Gregory the Great as a source. And therein lies the problem to my way of thinking… When we start considering Gregory as a “source” we are putting ourselves in an academic text-production paradigm. But that isn’t the most productive way to think about it at all.

The better way to think about it is one that finds Æ at home in his particular context. The question to begin is with is this one: When Æ sat down to produce an interpretation of biblical text X, how did he do it? What was his thought process? The answer is not that he reached for a source, rather, his mind went to his liturgical context and conditioning. When looking for a place to start, he’d head not to “Gregory” per se, but to “Paul”–Paul the Deacon–who had selected Gregory’s homily as the reading for the third Nocturn of the Night Office. The selection of Gregory is more a function of Æ’s liturgical context than the drive for a source. That is, Æ’s instinct was to go to the reading that had already liturgically interpreted the text and to use that as his main mode of entry into the text.

This isn’t necessarily a huge distinction but I do think it is an important one in terms of orientation and how we think through how the liturgical cycles influenced monastic authors. As a result, it also gives me a cleaner and clearer chapter shape so I can start by looking at Æ’s homily in its own right, then attend to the liturgical context which would include this kind of source material which almost invariably begins with the 3rd Nocturn homily (although he does sometimes supplement it from there–from other homiliaries) and also discuss how the liturgical texts of Mass and Office–hymns, collects, canticle antiphons, etc.–suggest or reinforce the interpretative tack he took.

Dissertation Work

Things have progressed to the point where I’ve been able to designate some brain cycles to dissertation work again. (I’ve had it–it *will* be finished by the end of the summer if it kills me. So far the odds are 50-50.)

Whereas before I started with more methodological stuff, I’ve dived into Æ’s sermons directly. What this has helped me see is that some of the stuff I pruned out before absolutely has to be put back into my re-formed chapters 2 and 3. Fr. Director thought that some of my work on patristic homilies was smoke-chasing; I’ve determined that it’s completely critical to the project.

Traditionally, early medieval homileticians have been accused of simple plagiarism. Indeed, Henri De Lubac’s only comment on Æ

is that he is a plagiarist of Gregory’s work. Rather, my work on the patristic material identifies not simply content but method and the purpose that derives from the method. What this let me do is to look at Æ’s sermons and to show that while, yes, he is recycling some content, he is using it in a very different way and with its own quite distinct method that throws light on what an early medieval preacher thought that he was creating.

My use of the Breviary has also been helpful. I now know I need to revisit some of my earlier liturgical work and look for some new evidence in different places.