Psalms and Monastic Education

It’s impossible to overstate the intimate connection between early medieval monastic education and the early medieval monastic liturgy. Learning was about acquiring the skills to participate within the liturgy, to comprehend the depths of the liturgy, to incorporate it into monastic practice, and—in turn—to enrich it.

At the heart of this educational program was mastery of the psalms.

You have to imagine what it would be like entering a monastery in 10th century England. A child, somewhere between the ages of 7 and 11 would be taken from their family, mother tongue, and the world of fields and woods and home handcrafts, and would be placed within an utterly alien environment. The central experience would be that of trooping into the oratory many times a day to sing unknown songs in an unknown tongue. One scholar of the period has reckoned that, in summer time, the monks would be awake for nineteen hours of the day; about eleven of these would be spent in song!

At first, no doubt, new boys and girls would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unfamiliar material. They would mumble along, trying to follow the pitch and to throw in a word or two when they could. At least they would have the benefit of singing alongside a number of other people—strong voices from whom they could take their lead. As daunting as this sounds, children are adaptable, and the presence of music itself would be a help.  It would be something like the experience of singing along to the radio in a foreign language. A number of times my wife and I have been surprised to hear our daughters (ages 8 and 10) singing along to a new song that we don’t remember hearing before—how, we wonder, could they have learned it so quickly!

Furthermore, once the initial tsunami of unfamiliar experiences had passed, the children would discern (perhaps with the help of their peers or teachers) that certain songs show up far more frequently than the others. In a Benedictine Reform monastery, the seven penitential psalms were sung several times every day as part of the payers for the king, queen, and benefactors (the trina oratio). Too, the Night Office invariably began with a recitation of the fifteen gradual psalms (Pss 120-134). Indeed, it would be a slow monk who didn’t quickly learn Psalm 51: during Lent, it would have been sung at least 8 times a day! Charting out the liturgical provisions of the Regularis Concordia, there were 35 psalms that would be sung every single day. Surely the young novices would have learned these quickly, at least to the point where they could confidently sing them in the midst of a group who knew them well. Naturally, they would have the additional impetus of knowing that those who made faults in the singing of the songs were subject to punishment during daily Chapter!

Thus, the constant liturgical cycle was a means for passive education. The children would sing along as they were able, and would absorb a massive amount of Latin. But—it would only be meaningless sounds to them without further help. The Old English of Ælfric’s Colloquy opens with this exchange between teacher and student:

Teacher: What is your work?

Student: I am presently a monk and I sing seven times each day with my brothers, but meanwhile, between them, I want to learn how to speak in the Latin tongue.

Both monastic rules and surviving educational books help give us a sense of how this mass of memorized sounds was converted into useful language. First, memorization of the psalms outside of the choir was an essential activity. A song you think you know well, that you can can belt out at the top of your lungs alongside the radio, can have some embarrassing sections of mumbling the first few times you try to sing it by yourself. In a similar fashion, despite the passive learning of the choir, the monks worked with teachers, other students, and by themselves to memorize the psalms. Benedict’s Rule specifically identifies the time after the Night Office in winter and after None throughout the year as a period to learn the psalms and readings. (A bit later in the text, Ælfric’s Colloquy clarifies that it is taking place after None.)

Benedict’s source, the Rule of the Master, describes the process in detail demonstrating that the active memorization of the psalms occurs in parallel with the learning of literacy. The passively memorized sounds are transformed into written words as the process of active memorization unfolds:

During these three hours [between Prime and Terce] the boys, in their deanery [groups of ten], are to learn letters on their tablets from someone who is literate. Moreover, we exhort illiterate adults up to the age of fifty to learn letters. Again, we wish it kept in mind that during these same periods the psalms are to be studied by those who do not know them, directed by the deans in their respective deanery. So during these three hours, they are to read [aloud] and listen to one another, and take turns teaching letters and psalms to those who do not know them. (RM 50:12-15)

And throughout [the] summer season, whether the meal is at the sixth hour or at the ninth, for whatever time remains between None until time for Vespers to begin, the various deaneries having been separated from one another in different places, some as directed by their deans are to read, others listen, others learn and teach letters, others studied psalms which they have transcribed. When they have mastered and memorized them perfectly, let their deans take them to the abbot to recite by heart the psalm or canticle or lesson of any kind. And as soon as he has recited it in its entirety, let him ask prayers for himself. Then when those present have prayed for him, the abbot concludes and the one who has done the reciting kisses the abbot’s knees. Either the abbot or the deans immediately order something new to be transcribed [for memorization], and after anything has been transcribed, before he studies it, let him again ask those present to pray for him; and in this way the learning of it is to be undertaken. (RM 50:62-69)

Now, there’s one other factor we have to account for. The Rule of the Master was written in the early sixth century somewhere in the region of Rome or Campania. The Latin of the psalms would still be largely comprehensible to the monks. To the 10th century English novices, it would have been a completely foreign tongue.

The manuscript British Library, Royal 2 B V gives us a fascinating perspective into how this challenge was addressed in England. The manuscript is a liturgical psalter that includes all 150 psalms plus the monastic canticles. It does not seem to have been used in choir as it lacks the psalm divisions necessary, but was a classroom book. The psalms are written in clear large letters. Above these, between the lines, is a running gloss in Old English explaining the meaning of the Latin words. In the margin are excerpts from Cassiodorus’s commentary on the Psalms. Working through this book a student would be learning to read Latin, learning to read Old English, acquiring an understanding of the Latin text, and beginning to learn how the psalms were interpreted by an important monastic author. A companion book written by the same scribe and presumably used alongside it (or at least in the same classroom) contains Jerome’s 59 homilies on the psalms.

This initial stage of education—the passive acquisition of the psalms, their active memorization, and an introduction to the exegetical method of the Church Fathers—provided a foundation that the monks and nuns would use the rest of their lives. This childhood memorization would be reinforced daily as the psalms were sung in the Daily Office. Too, psalm verse and portions were sprinkled throughout Office and Mass in the form of prayers, responsaries, and minor propers. Furthermore, the monks were to continue running through these memorized psalms outside of the oratory as well. The Regularis Concordia, in harmony with longstanding monastic tradition, recommends that the psalms be silently recited and meditated upon during the periods of work when the monks were at work in the fields or in the workshops.

This initial stage of education would be complete once the entire psalter and canticles were committed to memory. Exactly how long that would take depends entirely on the student, but contemporary sources do give us a sense of the range. In speaking of an early medieval saint, Gregory of Tours expresses his wonder that the saint was able to memorize the entire psalter in only 6 months instead of two or three years. It’s hard to say if two to three years was normal or if Gregory was exaggerating slightly for the sake of promoting the saint. Either way, this does give us something to go on—exceptional students might be able to get through this process in six months to a year while more ordinary students could take as long as three years.

[To Be Continued…]

10 thoughts on “Psalms and Monastic Education

  1. Derek Olsen

    It has the Old English interlinear gloss above the text but it doesn’t have the content gloss in the margin—at least not consistently and to the degree that the other does.

  2. David

    Great post! Very interesting. I wonder which canticles were part of the office during the 10th century, whether it was just the gospel canticles or the weekly round of OT canticles contained in the Anglican Breviary (or something else).

  3. Derek Olsen

    The canticles weren’t yet fully standardized in this period. Indeed, the Benedictine Reform itself seems to be responsible for moving more towards a standard pattern. Ælfric’s teacher Bishop (later St.) Æthelwold seems to be responsible for inserting the Athanasian Creed into the liturgy–as well as being the principal author of the interlinear psalm gloss mentioned above.

    To give an example, the Regius Psalter (Royal 2 B V) contains after the psalms:
    1. The Song of Isaiah (Confitebor tibi domine) [Monday]
    2. The Song of Hezekiah (Ego dixi) [Tuesday]
    3. The Song of Hannah (Exultavit cor meum) [Wednesday]
    4. The Song of Moses after the Red Sea (Cantemus domino) [Thursday]
    5. The Song of Habakkuk (Domine audivi auditum) [Friday]
    6. The Song from Deuteronomy (Adtende coelum et loquar) [Saturday]
    7. The Song of the Three Young Men (Benedicite omnia opera)
    8. The Song of Zechariah (Benedictus Dominus Deus)
    9. The Song of Mary (Magnificat)
    10. The Song of Simeon (Nunc dimitte)
    11. The Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult)
    12. Gloria in exclesis deo

    At this point you should be more convinced than ever that this is not a psalter for actual liturgical use—no Te Deum, it lacks the three canticles sung at a monastic matins, and it includes the Nunc Dimittis which does not feature in a standard monastic Compline. In most surviving late Anglo-Saxon psalters, these first six canticles appear in this order. After that, there’s wide variation in order and sometimes content with the Te Deum, Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds making appearances.

  4. Paul Goings

    Apart from the Te Deum, however, those are the Canticles of the Roman Breviary, which were used from late antiquity until 1970. So might this just be a secular Psalter?

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