Hymnography as an Avenue of Biblical Interpretation

Hymnography (Greek: ὑμνογραφία) is one of the most prolific and creative genres of Christian literature, especially Byzantine. The word hymn (ὕμνος) means a song of religious content composed for liturgical use. Christian worship included the singing of hymns from the very beginning (Matt. 26:30; Eph. 1: 3-14). The Holy Scriptures, as the most important source and content of Christian worship, inspire and permeate church hymns, many of which represent a true “mosaic of biblical words and phrases” (Lash 2008, 35). Thus, the earliest Christian hymns developed from the singing of psalms and biblical odes, and then from non-biblical refrains and antiphons, which were inserted between biblical verses (Frøyshov 2013).

Unlike the traditional approach, where the focus was on the historical and literary characteristics of hymnography, recent scholarship emphasizes its exegetical significance (Wickes 2019; Pentiuc 2021). The roots of exegetical hymnography can be found in the hymn On Pascha by Melito of Sardis (d. ca 180). Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus is retold in its first part, while in the second the significance of that narrative is presented. However, exegetical hymnography gained its real momentum in the 4th century among the Syrian-speaking Christians with Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373) and his hymns known as madrasha. The main characteristic of madrasha is that it is based on biblical texts and gives their interpretations. Somewhat later, under the influence of madrasha, but also other genres of Syrian hymnography, such as mêmrê (a metrical sermon) and soghitha (a responsory song in the form of dialogues) (Brock 1983; Brock 1989), the kontakion appeared in the Greek tradition (Maas 1910; Brock 1989). This hymnographic genre, which flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries, was a type of biblical commentary–sometimes called “sung homily”–in which the poet used dialogues and elaboration of the biblical text in order to convey the content of the Holy Scriptures to the public, i.e. the gathered congregation. The most important representative of this hymnographic genre is Romanos the Melodist (d. after 555), to whom a large number of kontakia are attributed, of which approximately sixty are authentic (Maas and Trypanis 1963).

Romanos the Melodist and Virgin Mary, Miniature from the Menologion of Basil II (ca 1000 CE).

The last great hymnographic genre, even though not the last to appear, is the kanon. Its beginnings date back to the 4th-5th centuries (Frøyshov 2013), but, thanks to several prominent hymnographers, such as Andrew of Crete (d. 740), John of Damascus (d. ca 750) and Kosmas the Melodist (d. ca 752), the kanon eventually prevailed from the 8th century as the most represented hymnographic genre in the Byzantine liturgical tradition. Based on nine biblical odes, the structure of the kanon summarizes the entire history of salvation from the passage of the Jews through the Red Sea (ode 1) to the incarnation of Christ (ode 9).

Great Byzantine hymnographers: Joseph the Hymnographer, Theophanes Graptos, Theodore the Studite, John of Damascus and Kosmas the Melodist. Nerezi (North Macedonia), north wall (1164 CE).

Hymnography is permeated with virtually all biblical readings, while hymnographers, using both previously mentioned and other genres to provide their interpretation of specific biblical verses, employ methods that overcome divisions both among biblical books and between the Old and New Testaments. Christian poets, therefore, used hymnographic forms to interpret the Holy Scriptures, but also to revive, actualize and reenact them in a certain way at liturgical gatherings (Merton 1956; Krueger, 2015). Therefore, in addition to typology and allegory as the two primary exegetical methods in hymnography, we should also mention the remarkably widespread practice of reworking, supplementing and even rewriting the Bible in liturgical hymns (Bucur 2007). Namely, instead of establishing a connection between a certain Old Testament and New Testament event or person, achieved by employing typology, or instead of searching for the spiritual reality behind an Old Testament narrative, which is characteristic of allegory, hymnographers rework and supplement biblical narratives and adapt them to specific contexts. In this process of elaborating or a kind of rewriting the biblical text, we see a rhetorical technique quite common for late antique and Byzantine hymnography, i.e. inventing speeches for biblical characters (prosopopeia or personification) or constructing dialogues between them. Such fictional speeches and dialogues have served various purposes, such as explaining silence in a text, attaching a certain theological meaning to the text, or developing the psychological profile of a particular biblical figure. Among the most illustrative examples are undoubtedly fictional dialogues between biblical protagonists that we meet in the hymnography of great feasts, such as Christmas (between the Mother of God and the Infant Jesus), Epiphany (between Christ and John the Baptist), Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (between Simeon and the Infant Jesus), etc.

In conclusion, it can be said that classical Byzantine biblical commentaries and hymnography are mutually complementary. Moreover, if we accept as the point of departure the fact that the liturgical space is the context in which the Holy Scriptures are listened to and interpreted, then this is already a major step towards recognizing hymnography as a privileged bearer of biblical exegesis. Finally, if we keep in mind that we no longer have systematic biblical commentaries in the Christian East since the 6th century, and especially in the post-iconoclastic period, which coincides with the flourishing of hymnography, we can claim that hymnography takes over that role to some extent. Therefore, it is impossible to fully assess the reach and value of the medieval biblical exegesis of the Orthodox East if hymnography is not taken into account.

Kosta Simic
Byzantine Postdoctoral Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)

Further Reading:

Brock, Sebastian. “Dialogue Hymns of the Syriac Churches”. Sobornost incorporating Eastern Churches Review 5:2 (1983) 35–45

______. “From Ephrem to Romanos”. In Studia Patristica 20, edited by Elizabeth A. Livingstone, 139–151. Leuven: Peeters, 1989.

Bucur, Bogdan. “Exegesis of Biblical Theophanies in Byzantine Hymnography: Rewritten Bible?”, Theological Studies 68 (2007) 92-112.

Frøyshov, Stig. ‘Byzantine Rite’, ‘Rite of Constantinople’ and ‘Rite of Jerusalem’, in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology at:https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/ b/byzantine-rite [by subscription], 2013.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. Theology and Poetry in Early Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Grosdidier de Matons, José Grosdidier. Romanos le Mélode et les origines de la poésie religieuse à Byzance, Paris: Éditions Beauchesne, 1977.

—. “Liturgie et Hymnographie: Kontakion et Canon”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34 (1980–81) 31-43.

Hall, Stuart George. Melito of Sardis “On Pascha” and Fragments, Oxford: Clarendon, 1979.

Lash, Ephrem. “Biblical Interpretation in Worship”. In The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, edited by Mary Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, 35–48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hannick, Christian. “The Theotokos in Byzantine Hymnography: Typology and Allegory”. In Images of the Mother of God. Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, edited by Maria Vassilaki, 69-76. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

“Hymnography”. In The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 2, edited by Alexander Kazhdan et al., 960-961. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Krueger, Derek. “Liturgical Time and Holy Land Reliquaries in Early Byzantium”. In Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond, edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein, 110-131. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2015.

Maas, Paul. “Das Kontakion”. Byzantinische Zeitschrift 19 (1910) 285–306.

Maas, Paul and Trypanis, Constantine Athanasius (eds). Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica: Cantica Genuina, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

Merton, Thomas. “Time and Liturgy”, Worship 31 (1956) 2-10.

Pentiuc, Eugen. Hearing the Scriptures: Liturgical Exegesis of the Old Testament in Byzantine Orthodox Hymnography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Wellesz, Egon. A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Wickes, Jeffrey. “Poetry and Hymnody”. In The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Biblical Interpretation, edited by Paul Blowers and Peter Martens, 254-269. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Re-Locating the Voice of the Sad Shield in Exeter Book Riddle 5

Translation, like any cultural practice, entails the creative reproduction of values.

— Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation (1998), 1.

In the introduction to the provocative collection The Word Exchange (Norton, 2011), Michael Matto cites the anonymity of Old English poetry as a constraint on its perceived voice, a problem exacerbated by the likelihood that any anthologized group of Old English poems will have been rendered by the same translator (Broadview, I’m looking at you). Matto states that avoiding this singularity is a motivation for seeking the efforts of established American, English, and Irish poets to have a crack at the highlights of the extant corpus. And some of these versions are quite tasty. [Particularly fun is James Harpur’s version of the “Rune Poem” or the Metrical Charms section. Many of the riddles are good too].

However, the cast of characters is pretty uniform otherwise: mostly white [Yusef Komunyakaa is the only Black poet featured] and all intentionally non-specialists. There may be a desire to bring multiplicity to the corpus, to “frequently exchange/ kindred voices” there — to cite my current translation of Riddle 8’s nightingale [wrixle geneahhe / heafodwoþe, ll. 2–3] — but the tone is pretty level no matter what. Mostly serious, mostly stately, mostly the expected sorts of voices. This is unfortunate. A good opportunity lost to the basic assumptions of the field. Dan Remein makes a similar observation, noting how conservative impulses to translation inevitably “converts Old English to popular contemporary workshop verse,” and produces a “homogenizing operation of conversion” (“Auden, Translation, Betrayal: Radical Poetics and Translation from Old English,” Literature Compass 8 [2011], 813).

I’m no stranger to Old English translation. Like Leonard Cohen says, “I know this room and I’ve walked this floor.” I took on a massive translation project unasked in 2007 as a game, as training, as a challenge. It started with Andreas, a text I needed for my dissertation and eventual book (Political Appetites [The Ohio State University Press, 2017]) and it ballooned from there. I have to admit I started it in pique, after being assigned S. A. J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman, 1982) back at Princeton. Those translations are so thoroughly non-apt, tamed and domesticated — yet so bloody canonical, ubiquitous like a cough. So, I went to work: rendering fifty lines a day for years, through change and transformation, learning a lot and making many, many mistakes along the way [many you can still find in my as-yet unedited versions online].

But after rendering about 27,000 lines of Old English poetry (which you can find here), I can only hear a dry wheeze in the “accepted voice” for its translation, the voice preferred even in The Word Exchange — the voice my work fell into as I went along, I am ashamed to admit. I stepped into the arena wanting to render poetry into poetic translations but failed at it largely. The conservatism of the field was a tide risen up to my thighs, and it was obstructing my steps.

Studies of Old English poetry have been resistant to change, slow to adapt, quick to distrust innovation, eager to exclude alternatives and erase competing arguments. It lags in time — and flirts with its own irrelevance. Part of the answer to this hesitancy, as far as I can survey in this valley of dry bones, rests in sepulchers of translation. In canons of respectability, as if Frederick Klaeber’s going to reach out from wherever and say, “Good job.”

But screw that, I no longer want to practice respectability.

I want my translation work to be scandalous. Queer. Deviant. Affronting. Extra extra. I want my translations to streak across the sky, their path both fyre gefysed and “scrawling red RSVPs in the sky” (Beowulf, 2309, tr. Headley, 2313).

Sure, I’m punk rock kid and I want to freak out the squares, but my desire is scholarly as well. These fusty translations do not invite interesting theories. They are largely “dog-trots,” to be truthful — guides to the language, and little more. Tightly controlled curations of a historical experience. They sacrifice poetry and music while chasing the dragon of “accuracy.” They often don’t even acknowledge that new arguments have been made and old ideas overshadowed or passed over, repeating the same old interpretation again and again. Largely this is because translation is not seen as productive scholarly work. It’s something thrown to a senior scholar, someone vested in the traditional ways of doing things. And any attempt to even gently question the party line is usually met with shuddering revulsion. How many Beowulves are out there that say exactly the same thing, that contain no fresh insights?

As Lawrence Venuti argues in The Scandals of Translation (1998), translation is fraught, difficult, and bound up in power differentials — these relations conscribe the translated text to the service of the translating culture (4). It is no different for translating Old English poetry: the theories and the needs of scholarship drive how the text is revealed. We clothe that figure. There is no objectivity possible in the act. There is no accurate translation. Even the reflex to claim authenticity is suspect — how often are the words themselves subject to emendation when they don’t accord with what an editor or dictionary-maker or metricist presumes should be there? Sculan does a lot of work in Old English studies, and the infinitive isn’t even extant.

Tl;dr — I am less interested these days in translating with propriety in mind and more about discovering new ways the poems might work through playing at their glitches. I am all about treating this archive less like a fetish in a glass box, and more like one of the items in my colleague James Brown Jr’s RCADE resource (the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera), a place where one learns about the intersections of technology, culture, and code by “cracking” an archived device — breaking it in effect.

That is where hip hop comes into the “Shield” Riddle.

It is clear that this lyric does not operate in the same way as its comrades in either run of Riddles in the Exeter Book. It does not riff on anaphoric hwilum clauses. It does not demand answers to its identity. It does not even move that far afield in its figurative leaps: a matter of sad synecdoche rather than eager metaphor. Its solution is only half the picture, and not really the most interesting part. Far more daring and challenging is how the poem exploits riddlic technology to invest an everyday object with otherwise unrepresentable emotion. There usually is no room in heroic literature for the aftermath, for the wounds and losses, for the pain even in victory or survival. The shield speaks those remainders — the real guþ-laf —  through the glitches in its design.

I have long been an admirer of hip hop culture. At first, I was intrigued by its contrariety, its insistence on reinterpreting history beyond white exceptionalism. How it thwarts musical expectations by making “noise” into structure, lovely in its chaos. I loved how it reverses chains of the commodity through sampling and loops and breaks and beats. The artform reclaims products of dominant culture to serve the needs of those it marginalizes. The consumer determines a proper use for the commodity — a reversal of the idea of “productive consumption” (to use Marx’s term [“Introduction to the Critique of Political Philosophy” (1857), 92]). It’s what “poaching” might sound like in de Certeau’s scheme of strategies versus tactics as resistance (The Practice of Everyday Life [Berkeley, 1984, trans. Steven Rendall], I.xii).

Only later did I start to appreciate the poetic designs of its emcees. How traditional practices of “signifying” not only challenge dominant schemes of language but also unfolds their fullest potentials in chains of signification (see Gates, The Signifying Monkey (1988), see ch. 2, 44ff.) in exactly the same way as the samples, poaching the resources of a language many did not choose. Rap lyrics encode minoritarian resistance to linguistic structures of oppression (such as Deleuze and Guattari describe in A Thousand Plateaus, 106ff.) Tricia Rose, in her foundational 1994 study of hip hop history and aesthetics, Black Noise, invokes hip hop’s Legbean quality of rising from the intersections of US urban cultures:

“Situated at the ‘crossroads of lack and desire,’ hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect. Hip-hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community. It is the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding tics of black cultural expressivity that sets the critical frame for the development of hip hop” (21).

Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s 2011 release, “Golden Era” (with one of his earlier rhymes superimposed), edited by Aaron Hostetter (2021).

Dr. Rose’s invocation of “Black noise” is appropriate here: hip hop thrives in the immense marches that Eurocentric poetics rely upon as exclusion, as outside to acceptability in order to create its own spaces of power. Hip hop poetry is a mearc-stapa (here, Ini Kamoze might chorus, “Word ‘em up!”], a voice from a culture many are conditioned not to accept as poetical at all. Jay-Z, in his book Decoded (2010), discusses the flush of language possible in the intersection of rhythmic spaces, low social expectations, and the desire to express oneself on multiple levels at once:

The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. (54)

Jay-Z hits at a common truth here: just like with hip hop emcees who could not possibly be creating elaborate metaphorical worlds of identity and expression, ancient poets are also denied fictionality and ambiguity by many modern readers. Scholars reduce their voices into stereotype. So, my goal is to locate and celebrate the moments of distortion, play, and contradiction in these lyrics.

Here, in Exeter Book Riddle 5, I though the best way to do so was to try my hand at writing bars.

Hip hop also features an expansive metrical form, embodied in the tension between rhythm and verbal stress, with unstressed syllables popping in to fill spaces between hard beats. The structure of a line is very similar to Old English meter, roughly built in groups of four strong stresses (to follow a rhythmic musical line in 4:4 time). The uneven distribution of unstressed syllables creates frequent opportunities for syncopation and off-stress sound effects (much like extant Old English poetry does, when performed properly).

Additionally, hip hop poets frequently glory in sound relations of every sort, including slant-rhyme, internal rhyme, off-beat rhyme, assonance, consonance, and of course alliteration. Most importantly, hip hop is explicitly a performed poetics, negotiating both sides of a supposed “Great Divide” between oral and written literatures, always already both and the same.

For my re-translation of this riddle, I chose to adopt a dense lyrical style similar to that used by the late MF DOOM (but is hardly exclusive to his rhymes). For example, see the intricate network of sound-play in this couplet:

Spot hot tracks like spot a pair of fat asses.
Shots of the scotch from out of square shot glasses (Madvillain, “All Caps” [2004]).

Also check out this couplet from Inspektah Deck:

My mind’s all-smart, it’s in the ballpark as Jean-Paul Sartre.
Yours is in the parking lot of Walmart bagging Duck Dynasty wall-art [Czarface, “Deviatin’ Septums” [2015]).

The translation cannot be just voiceless, so I thought I’d engineer an easy beat and arrangement for it (I’m only just learning how to do this). The backing track is an instrumental version of “Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me” by The Geto Boys (1991), a song about the psychological costs of violence and stress. The samples are eclectic, some Bringing Out the Dead (1999), some Space is the Place (1974), and a bit of Dead Presidents (1995), as well as Admiral Akbar, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Biggie Smalls. The idea is to link the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder possibly alluded to in the Shield Riddle, with expressions of reality made weird through warfare and violence, especially as that trauma has been unevenly distributed to African-American communities. To give the shield warrior’s space to heal: to be their læcce-cyn after all these centuries.

Aaron Hostetter
Associate Professor of Old and Middle English
Rutgers University-Camden

For Dr. Hostetter’s translation and recitation, see his Exeter Book Riddle 5.

For more translations by Dr. Hostetter, see his Old English Poetry Project.

Poetic form and the matter of the Virgin

This piece accompanies CJ Jones‘ sung recitations and translation of Ave virginalis formaJones contribution to our Medieval Poetry Project marks another exciting expansion as she bring a number of firsts to the project: the first Latin poem, the first Middle-High German poem, and the first song. She does not disappoint. Jones not only translates the song into modern English, she sings Ave virginalis forma in all three languages (Latin, Middle High German and modern English).

“Ave virginalis forma” from Munich, Bavarian State Library, cgm 716

Translator’s preface:

“Ave virginalis forma” (Analecta Hymnica, vol. 54, p. 379ff.) was composed in the first half of the fourteenth century and is attributed to an otherwise unattested Jacob, priest of Mühldorf. It was a highly complex and difficult poetic endeavor, both with regard to its poetic form and its classicizing and Greek vocabulary. Nevertheless, in the latter half of the fourteenth century the prolific songster known as “Der Mönch von Salzburg” (the monk from Salzburg) undertook to translate it into a German verse that maintained the poetic structure of the original Latin and could be sung more or less to the same melody. In attempting the same with modern English, I discovered just how difficult that is.

The chant is a sequence, a liturgical genre that was sung before the Gospel reading at Mass. (As far as I know, there is no evidence that “Ave virginalis forma” was actually sung liturgically, but formally it belongs to this genre.) Early sequences have very loose or no poetic form, but as the genre evolved, composers began to prefer texts with strict metrical forms and rhyme schemes. The first few verses of “Ave virginalis forma” fit the most popular poetic structure of the “new sequence” that was popular by the thirteenth century. The most significant characteristic that differentiates the sequence from the hymn is that sequence verses are paired, but the melody is through-composed. This means that verses 1 and 2 are sung to the same melody, but 3 has a new melody, repeated in verse 4, before yet a new melody is heard in verses 5 and 6, and so on. Within this overarching rule, there is some flexibility to repeat smaller melodic units and phrases. Jacob was sensitive to the relationship between the melody and the poetic form: for example, the closing line of the R and S verses is repeated for the following T and V pair and, accordingly, Jacob used the same end rhyme for all four verses. (Der Mönch von Salzburg did not notice the recycled melodic material and used different end rhymes for the two pairs; I tried my hardest to maintain the same rhyme for all four).

Jacob imposed an extra poetic constraint on himself: Ave virginalis forma is an abecedarium. Each verse begins with a letter of the alphabet (Ave, Botrus, Chere, Dei…). Der Mönch von Salzburg did follow this poetic constraint but for difficult letters simply took over the first word of the Latin verse and then set in with the German translation (Karissima / liebst aller lieb; Quis / wer). I permitted myself the same liberty. I should also note that both Jacob and der Mönch von Salzburg used the chi rho spelling of “Christ” for verse X, and I followed suit. Jacob also accomplished some real feats of poetic structure, which I was not able to imitate. The first and third lines of verses J and K rhyme both the first and second word, which neither the German nor the English manage (see also P and Q). Lines 2 and 4 of the L and K verses all end with internal double rhyme; der Mönch von Salzburg did a better job rendering this than I did. I settled on using rhyming syllables at the beginning and end of those lines. Finally, the paired N and O verses each incorporate an extraordinary sequence of internal rhyme, which neither der Mönch von Salzburg nor I were able to reproduce in German or English, although each of us gave it the old college try.

For the melody, I used two manuscripts of related provenance, Munich, Bavarian State Library, cgm 715 and cgm 716. Both manuscripts were produced in Bavaria toward the end of the fifteenth century and both were owned by the monastery of Tegernsee, although it is unlikely that either was produced there. I had to supplement and extrapolate from another manuscript for the German version because, due to an extraordinary eye-skip (from “vrowe” to “vrowe”), the scribe of cgm 715 left out the entirety of verse Q. The melody of the German differs slightly from the Latin – as do the melodies in other manuscripts containing the Latin sequence. If I were being true to medieval practice, I would have been looser with the melody for my English translation, as well.

I do not think that I have done justice to the beauty and complexity of the Latin sequence, neither in my sung recording nor in my translation. Still, in the process, I learned an enormous amount about stress and melodic shape, poetic flexibility, and Old Testament allegories for Mary. I owe thanks to Richard Fahey for encouraging me to take on this project, to Sean Martin for helping me record it, and to Christopher Miller for helping me edit the audio files.

Claire Taylor Jones
Assistant Professor of German
University of Notre Dame