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13.07.01, DelCogliano, ed. and trans. Gregory the Great: On the Song of Songs

13.07.01, DelCogliano, ed. and trans. Gregory the Great: On the Song of Songs

Mark DelCogliano pointedly observes that Gregory the Great's scriptural exegeses "recapitulate the best" of preceding commentators while "bequeathing this rich legacy to generations of Christians who lived after him" (xii). Yet, DelCogliano stresses that Gregory "was no mere copyist; he digested the thoughts of others and ruminated on them in light of his own experience as a pastor, ascetic, and contemplative. This would often transform the ideas of his sources in striking ways" (84). Given Gregory's undoubted importance as an exegete, the lack of English translations of Gregory's commentaries is puzzling. Though his homiletic treatments of Ezekiel and readings from the Gospel are more readily available, the only complete English version of the Moralia in Job, Gregory's magnum opus, remains James Bliss's mid-nineteenth century version. [1] The Exposition on the Song of Songs has suffered a worse fate, long ignored because of its brevity (covering only 1:1-8) and its disputed authorship. Denys Turner did translate it for inclusion among the anthology of Song commentaries that he provided for his Eros and Allegory. [2] Turner, as did DelCogliano, used Patricius Verbraken's Latin edition as the basis for his perfectly fine and readable version. [3] Furthermore, Turner's extensive discussion of allegorical exegesis and its goal of revealing the "four senses" of Scripture illuminated the traditional metaphorical reading of the Song's overt erotic "yearning" as symbolic of God's love for the Church. Copious end notes explained Turner's textual emendations and word choices, often in light of Rodrigue Bélanger's French edition and translation for the Sources chrétiennes series. [4] But, readers who desired further information as to the historical context surrounding the composition and transmission of the Expositio or its manuscript history would need to use their French skills and turn to Bélanger or Verbraken. No English translation brought all of this information together.

Now DelCogliano rectifies this situation by offering not just a fine translation of the Expositio, but one accompanied by enough material to form a "major sourcebook for anyone with an interest in Gregory's exegeses of this biblical book" (xii). To this end he prefaces the translation with a lengthy introduction that provides a biography of Gregory (1-28), establishes the authenticity of the text (29-57), discusses Gregory's exegetical method (57-84), and apprises the reader of Gregory's sources (84-99). Not only does DelCogliano translate the Expositio itself, but also three florilegia that compiled other Gregorian sententiae on the Song, drawn chiefly from the Moralia. These comprise the sixth book of Bede's Commentary on the Song of Songs, sections of the Liber testimonium of Paterius, and William of Saint Thierry's Excerpts from the Books of Blessed Gregory on the Song of Songs (147-240). These are the first English versions of Paterius and William's Excerpts. [5] Appendices provide a table which correlates with their modern Latin editions those references to the Song made by Gregory outside of the Expositio, as well as a concordance among Bede, Paterius, and William with textual notes and emendations for those three texts. An exhaustive bibliography and list of scriptural citations follow (251-314). DelCogliano thus brings together the totality of Gregory's comments on the Song and explores their nachleben. He also provides a detailed context for its composition and a compendium of scholarly criticism of this little text, omitting only a detailed discussion of the manuscript tradition.

DelCogliano is well placed to accomplish this task. His published translations of Basil the Great's Against Eunomius, Theory of Names, and a volume of his moral homilies might well comprise the entire published oeuvre of many busy teaching scholars, particularly when joined to his set of articles concerning the fourth-century Trinitarian debates. Here, DelCogliano's deep affinity with the Cistercian tradition, already expressed through his handling of Aelred of Rievaulx's Oratio pastoralis, has led him to consider Gregory's treatise and William's further elaboration. [6] He has done so admirably. This eminently readable, solid translation meets the stated goal of "render[ing] Gregory as clearly as possible in English without making him clearer than he is in Latin and . . . refrain[ing] from making his prose more exciting than his somewhat wooden style warrants" (101). A translator faces a particular challenge with this text, for it represents not a finished literary composition but a scribal copy of an oral exposition. An authentic rendering must register something of a colloquial tone that lacks much of the rhetorical flourish encountered in late antique literary compositions while nevertheless maintaining the sort of elevated expression one would expect from a man of Gregory's education and experience. DelCogliano sustains the conversational mood of the text, though heightened with scriptural references and patristic colorations, all while conveying the plain sense of the Latin.

The biographical section and discussion of the text's composition make clear that Gregory saw his exegetical work as an integral part of his pastoral duties. His scriptural commentary had to be preached or read aloud for the edification of the faithful. DelCogliano makes use of the latest scholarship to carefully situate Gregory's career within the period of economic contraction and social dislocations that afflicted Italy during the later sixth century. [7] Much learning produces a short, but incisive, portrait of a man holding to time-honored ideals who confronted a world of abrupt and sharp change as he led the Church during thirteen years of ill health. These factors impinged upon the form of the text of the Expositio. DelCogliano follows Bélanger and Paul Meyvaert in dating to between 594-98 the most authentic of its three surviving versions, characterized as "a notary's copy of an oral discourse" which, never truly refined into a written version, "circulated without (Gregory's) approval" (29). The busy, and often ill, pope simply lacked the time to finish it out. DelCogliano recapitulates, and accepts, arguments for an original full commentary on the entire book. He views most of the delivered exposition as later detached to leave only Gregory's comments on verses 1:1-8.

Whether this is the case or not, DelCogliano smartly uses this brief text to provide a mini-seminar on the goals and methods of late antique exegesis. Due to its overt eroticism, the Song required an allegorical interpretation to reveal the spiritual mysteries of the text: "God communicates what humans do not know by means of what they do know" (77). DelCogliano frames a concrete and straightforward treatment of allegory with Frances Young's discussions of methodike, historia, and skoposand demonstrates their use with concrete examples from Gregory's text. [8] I find this approach one of the great strengths of this book. Upper-level undergraduates, graduate students, and professors who attempt to teach them this material should welcome DelCogliano's contribution. He makes readily comprehensible the reasoning and methodology behind the arcane, abstruse, and apparently random connections encountered in patristic commentary.

DelCogliano most certainly achieves in this section his goals of engaging "students of patristic and medieval scriptural exegesis" and "more general students of patristic and medieval thought." His welcome translation of the William of St. Thierry's florilegia allows this work to appeal all the more to those with an interest in "monastic spirituality and Cistercian spirituality in particular," as well as those with a "particular interest in William of St. Thierry" (xii). Aside from a few choppy sentences and overused words in the introduction, the editing is good. The price is affordable. In short, I find this a most successful and useful offering that is a pleasure to read. The few little issues that I've quibbled over hardly mar a work that brings to an Anglophone audience an overlooked work of Gregory the Great and the scholarly criticism that illumines it.



[1] Gregory the Great, Homilies on the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, trans. by Theodosia Tomkinson, second ed. (Etna CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2008); Forty Gospel Homilies, trans. by David Hurst, Cistercian studies series 123 (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990); Morals on the Book of Job, translated by James Bliss, four volumes (Oxford: J. H. Parker, 1844-1850). Bliss's text now appears on line, but as yet without notes or scholarly apparatus:

[2] Denys Turner, Eros and Allegory, Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs, Cistercian Studies Series 156 (Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), pp. 215-256.

[3] Gregorius Magnus, Expositio in Canticum canticorum, ed. by Patricius Verbraken, CCSL 144, pp. 387-444.

[4] Grégoire le Grand, Commentaire sur la Cantique des cantiques, Sources chrétiennes 314 (Paris: éditions du Cerf, 1984).

[5] DelCogliano uses Hurst and Hudson's edition of Bede's In Cantica Canticorum, CCSL 119B; the Maurist edition of Paterius, PL 79:683-916; and Verdeyen et al.'s edition of William of St. Thierry, CCCM 87, pp. 387-92.

[6] Even though a young scholar, Delcogliano enjoys his own Amazon page: A list of his recent articles appears at

[7] Footnotes contain the expected references to Averil Cameron, Thomas S. Burns, Pierre Riché, Roger Collins, Patrick Amory, Jeffry Richards, Carole Straw, R. A. Markus alongside John Moorhead's more recent Gregory the Great (Routledge, 2005) and Andrew Ekonomou's Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes (Lexington Books, 2007). The omission of Chris Wickham, while puzzling, in no way impacts the general points so clearly sketched in such few pages.

[8] Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).