The Medieval Review 11.02.22

Rose, Els. Ritual Memory: The Apocryphal Acts and Liturgical Commemoration in the Early Medieval West (c.500-1215). Mittellateinische Studien und Texte 40. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xiv, 338. EUR 121.00 / $194.00 ISBN 978-90-04-17171-8. .

Reviewed by:

Yitzhak Hen
Ben Gurion University of the Negev
yhen@bgu.ac.il

In what is commonly accepted as the earliest reference to the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, Eusebius of Caesarea (d. c. 339) recorded a series of spurious and dubious Acts, which he condemned unorthodox and unauthorized. These, he wrote, "would all be classed with the Disputed Books, but I have been obliged to list the latter separately, distinguishing those writings which according to the tradition of the Church are true, genuine, and recognized, from those in a different category, not canonical but disputed, yet familiar to most churchmen; for we must not confuse these with the writings published by heretics under the name of the apostles, as containing either Gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and several others besides these, or Acts of Andrew, John, and other Apostles. To none of these has any churchman of any generation ever seen fit to refer in his writings." [1] Eusebius' succinct and astute report on the Apocryphal Acts is extremely revealing. Not only does it document the proliferation of such treatises at a fairly early stage of Christian history, it also points to what was to become one of the standard tropes in the study of Apocryphal compositions--the notion that these texts were composed and disseminated by heretics for their own theological and missionary purposes. Yet, the most outstanding point raised by Eusebius in this short passage, is the fact these unorthodox and unauthorized compositions, although condemned by Christian authorities, were known to everyone and read by many, not the least by churchmen. This attraction-rejection tension is one of the most prevailing characteristics of the transmission and dissemination of the Apocryphal Acts from the time of Eusebius to the present day. Although questioned, denounced and dismissed as heretical, these treatises were copied, translated and re-written time and again throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, hence becoming an integral part of what may be termed the Christian heritage of the medieval world. Our sources, whether historical, legal, hagiographic, poetic or artistic, are imbued with apocryphal stories and traditions, and so the fascination with these apocryphal monuments and remnants in modern scholarship is only to be expected. The Bollandists were indeed the first to take the study of the Apocryphal Acts seriously, but many scholars from all around the world followed suit.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Apocryphal texts and traditions. The work of scholars, such as François Dolbeau, François Bovon, Jean-Daniel Kaestli, or Éric Junod, has set the tone for a more critical and cultural approach to the study of Apocryphal treatises and lore, their dissemination, and their role in the emergence of medieval culture and religion. Els Rose's book under review here is the latest and most erudite contribution to the burgeoning literature on the matter. In her book, Rose examines the complicated and multi-layered relations between the liturgical commemoration of the Apostles and the Apocryphal literature that recorded their lives and activities. After a short introduction, in which she explains her choices and identifies her sources, Rose provides in the first chapter a succinct survey of modern and medieval approaches to the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, and their interaction with canonical sources, hagiography and liturgy. The subsequent chapters focus on the liturgical commemoration of the six "minor" Apostles, whose feasts were celebrated in the early medieval (i.e. c.500-1215) West, that is, Bartholomew (chapter 2), Philip and James the Less (chapter 3), Matthew (chapter 4), and Simon and Jude (chapter 5). In each of these chapters Rose delineates very elegantly the ways in which the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, and the various traditions they transmit, were incorporated into the liturgical commemoration of the Apostles in the early medieval West. But, Rose does not stop here; she goes on to argue, very convincingly indeed, that the various practices of ritual commemoration had a crucial role in the transmission and dissemination of Apocryphal Acts, as well as in the transformation of these narrative traditions as a result of their incorporation into the ritual context. For example, in the case of Matthew, a gradual process of acquaintance with Apocryphal traditions can be traced. Whereas the earliest Gallican mass in honour of Matthew (to be found in the so-called Irish Palimpsest Sacramentary, i.e. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 14429, and dated to the seventh century), as well as the masses for Matthew in the Eighth-Century Gelasian Sacramentaries rely almost exclusively on canonical Scripture, the mass for Matthew in the Spanish Liber Mozarabicus is imbued with thematic and literary borrowings from the Apocryphal Passio Matthaei, as transmitted by the Latin Collection of Pseudo-Abdias. However, both liturgical traditions--the Frankish and the Mozarabic--made ample use of doctrinal material that echoes some of the Christological debates of the fourth and the fifth century in order to counterbalance Matthew's endorsement of Christ's humanity. Moreover, the Apocryphal theme of Matthew's martyrdom, which is central to the commemoration of Matthew in the Spanish liturgy, was later adopted and elaborated in various hymns, most notably by Alfanus of Salerno (d. 1085), as a relevant model for political and ecclesiastical change.

In the last chapter of the book Rose weaves the conclusions from the previous chapters into a broad overview of the ways in which the Apostles were portrayed in the liturgy. Hence, she surveys the image of the Apostles as founders of local churches, their role in the battle against demons, and their qualities as persuasive preachers. The various liturgical traditions of the early medieval West also endorsed the image of the Apostles as martyrs, thus turning the eyewitnesses of Christ's life and work into blood-witnesses, the ultimate imitatores Christi. A brief look at the companions, with whom the Apostles were associated, reveals an interesting story. Apparently, unlike the Apocryphal Acts, the various liturgies that relied heavily on Apocryphal narratives were reluctant to attribute a major role to women in the foundation of Christian communities. On the other hand, the very same liturgies emphasized the special bond between the Apostles and local rulers, maybe as a wishful reflection on the political situation of their time. Finally, Rose examines the tendency to group the Apostles and describe them as a collegiums, rather than active individuals.

To sum up, Ritual Memory is a splendid book, clearly written and thoroughly documented. Rose's acquaintance with the sources, both primary and secondary, is impressive, and her analysis is lucid, fresh, well argued, and persuasive. No doubt, this book will shortly become an essential reading for anyone embarking on the study of Apocrypha in the medieval West or the liturgical commemoration of the Apostles. After reading the book I was wondering to myself whether the liturgical commemoration of the Apostles in the Byzantine East went along the same path, but obviously such a comparison is far beyond the scope of a single monograph.

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Notes:

1. I cite the English translation of Eusebius, History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamson (Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1965), III.25, pp. 134-5.