15.08.55, Billett, The Divine Office in Anglo-Saxon England

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Richard Pfaff

The Medieval Review 15.08.55

Billett, Jesse D. The Divine Office in Anglo-Saxon England, 597-c. 1000. Henry Bradshaw Society for the Editing of Rare Liturgical Texts - Subsidia, VII. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2014. pp. xxii, 463. ISBN: 978-1-90749-728-5 (hardback).

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

This very substantial contribution to liturgical history consists of two parts, quite separable. Part I, "The Historical Development of the Divine Office in England to c. 1000," constitutes an extremely solid monograph of some two hundred pages. After a historiographical introduction and a survey of the history of the early medieval Office in, mainly, Italy and Frankia, the subject is pursued with respect to England in three chronologically shaped chapters, dividing at c. 835 (the first Viking invasions) and c. 940 (the beginning of Dunstan's abbacy at Glastonbury). The narrative stops shortly after 970, with the spread of the Regularis concordia, a would-be normative document for English monasteries issued in that year.

Part II takes quite a different tack, so much so that it might almost stand on its own. Called "Manuscript Evidence for English Office Chant in the Tenth Century," it is mostly a highly technical study of two little-known fragments of English Office books of the period, prefaced by a lengthy methodological discussion and an exposition of how the two fragments are to be treated, and followed by a scrupulous edition, according to the most stringent conventions of diplomatic transmission, of the two (plus, as a kind of bonus, of a third, as yielding some ancillary light). A large bibliography and four thorough indexes complete the volume.

This arid summary of the book's contents gives little idea of the richness of information, excellence of scholarship, and extent of unanswered (and, in part, unasked) questions that characterize it. Jesse Billett has tried to make an intrinsically complex subject as clear as possible without a jot of simplification. The attempt is laudable, and the reader is helped in a number of ways: most of the Latin quoted is accompanied by a translation, save for a few formulaic words and phrases; the rich documentation is presented in foot-, not end-, notes; tables are used abundantly (there are some twenty-five); the chapters are divided into mercifully chewable sections, and are laid out initially in a helpful analytical table of contents. All that said, the book is tough reading, probably unavoidably; it is hard to imagine that there are more than a dozen people in the world who would find it smooth going. But the effort required is eminently worthwhile: to rephrase a corny aphorism, for those who like this sort of thing, this is very much something to like--even if one finishes it wanting something slightly more.

It is assumed, fairly enough, that the reader will have some familiarity with Anglo-Saxon history, with early western monasticism, and with basic liturgical terms. This enables Billett to begin his work by a kind of coat-trailing, announcing at the outset what he calls a "New Narrative" for his subject. This narrative contests, and largely overthrows, the previously dominant "Benedictine hypothesis" (in brief, that Augustine of Canterbury was an observant Benedictine monk and therefore all monasticism in early Anglo-Saxon England was conducted according to the Rule). It generally accepts the "Minster hypothesis" (that the numerous minsters that have come more prominently to consciousness in the last half-century contained a diversity of forms of religious life, the strictly monastic being only one), with the corollary of some variety of practice in performance of the Office. The upshot, laid out clearly, is that "this new narrative can be reduced to two essential points. First,...the Benedictine form of the Office was not used in England before the monastic reform of the tenth century. Second, once this reform took place, it was not absolutely necessary for monasteries to apply to the Continent for books suitable for the new Office liturgy" (11).

Much of the thrust of Part I has to do with clarifying a distinction between the forms of the Office conventionally called "secular" and "monastic." This distinction certainly has its uses, in various aspects of manuscript study as well as in liturgical terminology; but Billett shows that it has in the past often been adduced simplistically and anachronistically. He overturns the assumption that the two forms of Office that were clearly distinguishable (the most obvious point being the provision of a twelve-lesson schema at the Night Office on Sundays and great feasts for the monastic form, as opposed to a nine-lesson schema for the secular) by, say, 900 had emerged centuries earlier from, respectively, monasteries following the Rule of Benedict and well-staffed secular churches (cathedrals and basilicas), above all in Rome. The matter is much more complex, and Billett sorts out the complexity dexterously, rapping knuckles where necessary (once, vigorously but almost certainly correctly, the present reviewer's). His conclusion--again, offered at the beginning of the section to which it is relevant--is that "the origin of the system of separate forms of the Office for secular clergy and monks must be sought in the imposition of the Roman Office on the Frankish Church in the eighth century followed by the adoption by Frankish monks, beginning in the ninth century, of a different form drawn from the Regula S. Benedicti" (13).

The secular form has no "foundation document" like the Rule, and indeed he holds that "the earliest systematic description [of it] is found in the writings of Amalarius of Metz (d. c. 853)" (14). Instructive tables showing key sets of details like the distribution of psalms in the two forms are headed with refreshing hesitations like "A tentative reconstruction" and "The probable distribution." These point up the fact that, since both forms reach something like a normative state only well into the ninth century, statements about the Office in Anglo-Saxon England before that date must be made with more caution than has hitherto tended to be the case.

The next chapter, on the Office during roughly the first two and a half centuries after the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury takes the narrative back in time to 597. Here the conclusion is that for England "there is no evidence for the use of the monastic Office as laid down in the Regula...The evidence rather points to the joint recitation of a single Office by both monks and secular clergy" (78). Such a succinctly stated position is reached through painstaking, sometimes almost wearisome, combing of several kinds of evidence (that drawn from charters is particularly welcome) and of a great deal of secondary scholarship: a thoroughness that underlies every conclusion offered, throughout the book as well as in this chapter.

Part II is a different kind of animal. In effect an extended appendix to the first part, this presents, in the most complete scholarly fashion imaginable, two fragments from tenth-century manuscripts that Billett finds contributory to his overall argument--but only after discussing two other witnesses, both in somewhat well-known books, that may say a good deal about the secular office in tenth-century England, and complement his careful exposition of methodology in the study of chant books. The primary material for analysis consists of bits of chant-text (virtually no notation), a kind of study pioneered by, in particular, three French Benedictines--Gabriel Beyssac, Victor Leroquais, and René-Jean Hesbert--mostly in the 1920s and 30s. Billett refines their method, relying heavily on work of the late musicologist David Chadd, into what is termed "a more flexible approach to analysing Office ordines." This approach is still uncompromisingly scientific, relying on the gathering of the largest possible number of the texts of antiphons and responsories and then classifying them, most often by numerical order. Conclusions are then drawn from similarities and discrepancies in the resulting patterns, making it possible to show, for example, that a particular manuscript fragment's "extra" texts illustrate development of an originally nine-lesson (= secular Office) into a twelve-lesson (= monastic) schema.

The amount of patience required of the author in drawing up the tables that occupy dozens of pages in this part almost exceeds belief. A similar degree of patience can scarcely be expected of those who use his book. Although most of his conclusions are likely to be accepted by faith rather than works (i.e., trying to replicate what he has done), he has played fair throughout. The main conclusions reached in Part I are reinforced by the exhaustive analyses in the second part, which is mainly corroborative. Even if the reader gets dizzy trying to follow the minute details of the demonstration, the palaeographical and codicological skills Billett displays in this part inspire awe.

Since this book is in several ways a model of precise scholarship, a word needs to be said about the extensive bibliography, the rationale for which should be primarily as a help to readers. Whether the conventional division into primary sources and secondary literature serves this purpose optimally is open to question, especially for a subject in which so much original scholarship lies in the prefatory material of editions. But the main problem with the bibliography is some inconsistency in the way the primary sources are presented. Ælfric's Letter to the Monks of Eynsham appears under Ælfric (as it should, despite the excellence of C.A. Jones's edition), but his Pastoral Letters under "H" (for Fehr's edition, Hirtenbriefe). The Rule of Benedict is cited in three places, as Benedicti Regula, RB 1980, and Regula S. Benedicti, plus three editions of particular versions. Eleven of Bede's works are cited under Bede, but the best known, the History, only under McClure and Collins (for translation) and Plummer (for the text, and that under V[enerabilis]!); the Colgrave and Mynors Oxford Medieval Texts goes unmentioned.

Problems with the bibliography aside, what Billett has done here seems almost flawless. Yet a few things can be argued with, from matters large (above all, how might the total ignoring of the Mass liturgy skew study of the Office?) to small (e.g., might some consideration of psalter collects, as they appear in BnF MS lat. 13159, have affected the discussion of that key witness on pp. 63-4?). And the reader--this reader, anyhow--is left hungry for more: not for more statistically based analysis, as in Part II, but for continuation of the story for another century. Treatments of many topics having to do with Anglo-Saxon England now most commonly terminate in about 1100, not c. 1000. It is of course unfair to suggest that a book should be substantially different than it is; yet it seems neither unfair nor uncharitable to wish that Part I of this book could be extended chronologically and (re-)issued, perhaps in paperback, by a less specialized publisher than the Henry Bradshaw Society (of which, as principles of disclosure require, the present reviewer is an honorary officer as well as an ardent partisan). Billett has achieved a major piece of scholarship, and it should be circulated as widely as possible.

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