03.05.07, Bedingfield, The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England

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Richard Pfaff

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.007


Bedingfield, M. Bradford. The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England. Series: Anglo-Saxon Studies, vol. 1. Woodbridge UK: The Boydell Press, 2002. Pp. ix, 246. ISBN: 0-851-15873-0.

Reviewed by:
Richard Pfaff
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Bradford Bedingfield has turned his Oxford doctoral thesis into an ambitious monograph. The title of the thesis, "Dramatic Ritual and Preaching in Late Anglo-Saxon England," suggests rather more adequately than the present one the author's three main premises. The first is that there is something that can be identified, at least by extrapolation, as the liturgy -- always in the singular -- in (late) Anglo-Saxon England. The second, that this liturgy is in a particular, basically non-representational, way dramatic, above all at the great feasts of the church. And the third, that consonance can be established between these "dramatic" rites and language used in the vernacular sermons of the celebrated preachers of the same place and period, mainly Aelfric, Wulstan, and the Blickling Homilist.

The first premise is evident in the careful introduction which attempts to lay out what can be known about liturgy as performed in England in the late tenth and eleventh centuries from the surviving service books, or major fragments thereof, as well as from the Regularis Concordia and from Aelfric's Letter to the Monks of Eynsham, recently made available in the fine edition of C.A. Jones. This done, Bedingfield declares his intention of focusing "on evidence that indicates active interpretation or revision of these rituals, demonstrating Anglo-Saxon interest in developing the liturgy to take greater advantage of its dramatic potential" (20). "Greater" than what is not, however, made at all plain. If greater than what had been the situation earlier in England, the author is aware -- and states with salutary candor several times -- that we donot know enough about that to make detailed comparison possible. If greater than what was happening on the Continent during the same period (roughly 950-1100), this would require close consideration of numerous Continental texts, and especially of the Romano-German pontifical and its manifold offshoots: matters not fairly within the scope of the author's main purpose, to be sure, but comparison, whether implicit or explicit, flags if they are not considered.

Close reading of rites in the available sources for all of the great occasions of the liturgical year takes up the bulk of the book. "Close reading" is indeed the overriding technique used. The texts, and where available the rubrics, for each of these rites -- for Christmas and Epiphany, Candlemas, Ash Wednesday and Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, Rogationtide and the Ascension, Pentecost, and Advent -- are explicated as though they were, say, sonnets or plays by Shakespeare. That the texts often employ language that seems in an overt way to be "dramatic" cannot be doubted (although the working definition of "dramatic" is never quite clear). Rubrics, too, and the extensive deployment of the rubrical mentality in the Regularis Concordia, point to a direction which can fairly be termed "dramatic," the most famous instance being the instructions for the Visitatio Sepulchri ceremony as laid out in the Concordia and very likely performed at least at Winchester Old Minster.

A single example may indicate how this approach -- what one might call "explication des rites" -- both works and fails: the rite for Candlemas (alias Purification of Virgin Mary, also known as Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 2 February). To anyone who knows the story as told in Luke's gospel there is built-in dramatic poignancy in the taking up of the infant Jesus by the aged Simeon and in Simeon's eloquent reponse in uttering what is commonly known as the Nunc dimittis. The use of his words in the annual commemoration of that event seems natural, and is indeed widespread; there is no reason to think that this is first done in England. It is dramatic not in the sense that, say, a cleric pretends to be Simeon and a doll (or, riskily, a live infant) is cast as Jesus -- the representational mode which Bedingfield rightly stresses is for the most part not the mode of operation here. What becomes something that can be called dramatic is supplied by the juxtaposition of the gospel story with the worshipper's present liturgical experience, so that the story can be entered into in a manner not unlike that of the re-entering through memory (anamnesis, in Greek terminology) basic to the catholic understanding of the Eucharist. But there is no absolute dramatic value. A "lewed" peasant may attend Mass that day and derive spiritual benefit without any idea of the story commemorated. At the other extreme, a cleric from, say, York minster in the time of Wulstan would bring to the annual Candlemas service his experience of reciting the Nunc dimittis every night at compline, probably with an antiphon that highlights the waking/sleeping contrast where sleeping is never far from dying (ironically, those who worshipped according to the Regularis Concordia would most likely have missed this additional poignancy, because the Nunc dimittis is not part of monastic compline, only secular). And, though the point is anachronistic, a Lutheran accustomed to hearing those words as a post-communion thanksgiving would bring a different layer of "dramatic" understanding to the February 2nd rite. So (as with the often confused distinction between "imply" and "infer"), it is scarcely meaningful to postulate a coherent set of reactions to liturgical rites, even though they clearly possess potential to be understood as possessing dramatic values.

Unlike the second premise, which is postulated more than proved, the third is definitively shown. Bedingfield, who possesses a fine command of the corpus of Old English preaching, demonstrates again and again that skilled vernacular preachers pointed the parallels, poignancies, and moral lessons implicit in the various rites. Perhaps wisely, he leaves untouched the thorny matter of Latin preaching in eleventh-century England: how much there may have been, and if so to what extent the characteristics he highlights in the vernacular preaching would also have been present. But this is not meant to be primarily a study of preaching; rather, what is provided is a highly valuable Vade mecum to vernacular sermons as they relate to the great occasions of the temporal cycle.

Accepting, or at least understanding, the author's premises does not, fortunately, entail swallowing what appears to be a large claim repeated several times in this monograph: that there is something he terms "the whole Anglo-Saxon demographic," which consists of all the "celebrants" -- the word used regularly here -- all of whom, albeit in varying degrees buy into (in the colloquial phrase) the rites studied. So, discussing the high point of the Good Friday liturgy, the veneration of the cross as prescribed in the Regularis Concordia, Bedingfield posits that "at a monastic cathedral like Winchester, given the universal nature of Adoration celebration in the Western church, one might imagine the entire demographic of Anglo-Saxon England, from King to slave, adoring the Cross"(132, capitalization his); or, speaking of Rogationtide, that "from the time of its inception it was a practice for the common people, and would have involved the whole demographic of Anglo-Saxon society" (196). Even to assert that all sorts and conditions of people went to such services is incapable of demonstration; that they were all in some way able to share in the complex interplay of spoken word, sung word, ritual gesture, and prior liturgical experience (e.g., the cleric at Candlemas who recites compline nightly) involved in these services -- the fundamental position taken here -- seems at the least implausible.

The attitude manifest here is not confined to this book. What can only be called a kind of romanticism in approaching medieval liturgy, especially in Anglo-Saxon England, has become evident in the past decade or so. It is largely textual in approach, relying heavily on juxtaposition of Latin liturgical with vernacular literary texts. Something prescribed in a rubric is accepted ipso facto as having been carried out, the wording of a prayer as a guide to the mentality of the person who recited it and even (as Bedingfield supposes steadily) of whose who heard those words -- even if the words were in fact mumbled inaudibly, chanted incomprehensibly, or merely uttered in a language not understanded of the people (to quote Cranmer, who seems to have grasped a thing or two about liturgy and the vernacular). It is in large part the approach of many who have written about liturgical matters from a devotional standpoint, like, notably, Prosper Gueranger (1805-75) or Fernand Cabrol (1855-1937), both connected with the abbey of Solesmes.

In sum, this approach posits a spiritual value to liturgical rites quite separable from their actual performance, and (though this would not necessarily follow) it is sometimes not very careful about details. Both of these characteristics are evident in the present work. As to the first, little attention is paid to the physical circumstances in which these rites would have been performed, even to such commonsense factors as the effect that the variability, over a five-week period, of Easter has on all occasions dependent on that feast, from Septuagesima through Pentecost. The chapter on baptism, for example (which in any case sits somewhat awkwardly to the main theme and is brought in here in the context of the Easter vigil, even though it is explained that baptisms on that occasion in late Anglo-Saxon England would have been extremely rare), ignores entirely the fact that whereas the valence of the rites discussed otherwise is that of annual observance, baptism is for the recipient (normally an infant) and the associated families and supporters a once-only affair, so there can be no piling up of associations such as is available to, say, one who has worshipped at the Midnight Mass of Christmas for a number of years. And in the extensive treatment of Rogationtide no mention is made whatever of the beating of the bounds aspect, so congruent with the fascination with boundaries evident in numerous Anglo-Saxon charters. The liturgy as presented here is very spiritual liturgy indeeed.

In the matter of details, while it is much to the credit of the author (and series, Boydell's newly revamped "Anglo-Saxon Studies") that translations are provided of all passages, in either Latin or English, of more than a few words -- and in proper footnotes, which makes for easy reference -- the reader's confidence is a bit shaken by glitches that seem more worrying than mere misprints. The worst, because potentially most misleading, of these is the confusion of capitula with collects on pp. 27-29, as in the statement that "the Leofric Missal has two Capitulae, two Praefationes, and two Ad Complenda," where what is meant is two Collectae (or Orationes; in any case capitula is itself plural). Likewise, what is printed as "the final reading for the procession" on Palm Sunday is not a reading at all but a prayer (105). Lower potential stumbling blocks include "the monastery of St. Magliorii" (for Magloire, 30), the Roman dramatist "Terrance" (224-25), the "Acti Pilati" (repeatedly), and in the bibliography the transmutation of R.C. Love, editor of an important collection of Anglo-Saxon saints' lives, into Lowe. The edition of the Gelasian sacramentary cited throughout is that of H.A. Wilson published in 1896 which, admirable though this remains, has been largely replaced for scholarly purposes by Mohlberg's as long ago as 1960; and it seems to be implied that the "Old" Gelasian is the recension of that strand which is relevant in late Anglo-Saxon England, whereas it is clearly the "Young" or "Eighth-Century" Gelasians that matter here (hence also the apparent misunderstanding, on p. 52 n. 7, of Wilson's apparatus which makes it look as though he used several manuscripts of the Old Gelasian, whereas only a single complete one survives). It is also odd that Lanfranc's provisions for Palm Sunday are cited (95) from the notes to the 1917 edition of the Canterbury Benedictional by R.C. Woolley -- who took his text from Dachery's published in 1745 -- rather than from the standard Nelson's/Oxford Medieval Texts edition of David Knowles (1951), splendidly revised by Christopher Brooke last year.

To call attention to such points may seem unduly pedantic, but this is a demanding and, as stated at the outset, ambitious work, as well as arresting and thought-provoking, and it deserves stringent assessment. Despite the fact that the approach underpinning the book needs to be called into question, what is offered here can, and almost certainly will, be used for a variety of scholarly purposes. Readers will profit in proportion as they do so cautiously.


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Richard Pfaff

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill