The Medieval Review 16.05.10

Parpulov, Georgi R. Toward a History of Byzantine Psalters ca. 850-1350 AD. Plovdiv, 2014. pp. 320. open source publication: see link below (ebook).

Reviewed by:

Charles Barber
Princeton University

Link to the open source publication:

In this study, Georgi Parpulov has provided the reader with a brief but essential introduction to the Byzantine Psalter. A series of case studies and twenty-seven appendices offer a rich and revealing account of both normative expectations and remarkable exceptions to a type of book that was central to Byzantine spiritual life. Indeed, the Psalter's ubiquitous role in the daily round of prayer and its use in primary education rendered the text among the most familiar in Byzantium. Instructions left for monastic communities--a special case, but one that offered a model for the lay spiritual life (75)--provide us with a glimpse of this familiarity. In the eleventh century Alexis Stoudites ordered that, "Above all, let the abbot make sure that every monk learn the Psalter to such an extent that no one should need books on whichever side, but [like] living, animate books they should [themselves] hold the sacred psalmody in their soul" (71). The intensity of this engagement is underscored by the early-Palaiologan devotional handbook of Thekaras, which invites its readers to "recite half of the Psalter in a single day, and on the next day, the other half, [i.e.] you will recite it three times a week" (74). These passages remind us of the very real importance of this book in Byzantium.

The "normal" Psalter was a relatively small book containing one hundred and fifty-one Psalms and nine Biblical Odes. Larger volumes intended for liturgical use are relatively scarce. Nonetheless, smaller volumes were frequently marked with the divisions of the Psalms into doxa and kathismata that point to the regular and repetitive rounds of daily Psalm singing that blur rigid distinctions between public and private devotion. Many manuscripts contain prefatory materials, commentaries, and a variety of appendices that make the Psalter an object of study as well as of prayer. It is a book that brings us closer to individual piety and the spiritual life performed within Byzantine society.

Having established broad expectations for the Psalter and for its use (1-77), Parpulov then introduces a series of case studies that provide insights into different aspects of the Byzantine Psalter. His focus is primarily upon how an attentive reading of the texts within Psalters can indicate variations in their use. He begins by introducing examples of Psalters made for monastic communities in and near Palestine between 878 and 929 AD (78-85). The manuscripts discussed are: Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Greek MS 216; Mount Sinai, Monastery of Saint Catherine, Greek MSS 28-37; Moscow, State Library of Russia, f. 201 (Norov) MS 18/1. Here Parpulov's focus is upon the structured division and reading of the text that provides an influential model for later monastic communities. The second group encompasses the renowned ninth-century Psalters that contain significant marginal imagery (86-93): Moscow, State Historical Museum, MS Khludov 129d; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Greek MS 20; Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery, MS 61. In his discussion of these works, Parpulov pays close attention to the evidence for their being made for urban Christians whose reading of the Psalter was conditioned by cathedral practices. He next introduces two Italian manuscripts (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct.D.4.1; Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Barber. gr. 285) that appear to present the Psalter as it would have been used in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople/Istanbul (94-102). The fourth group dates from the early twelfth century and is linked by a new practice of inserting short hymns and prayers at each major division of the Psalms (103-116). The four manuscripts (Mount Sinai, Monastery of Saint Catherine, Greek MS 40; Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery, MS 43; Mount Athos, Iberon Monastery, MS 22; Cambridge MA, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Greek MS 3) differ from one another, but all may reflect a development in Stoudite piety in the mid-eleventh century that is associated with Niketas Stethatos. His hypotyposis introduced an extended cycle of psalmody and hymn signing into the night offices. This cycle is strongly echoed in these twelfth-century manuscripts. Parpulov next turns to Psalters that reveal that they were intended for women (117-122). While the two books discussed (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Holkham gr. 1; Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud. gr. 2) were meant for women, they betray little consideration of the gender of their reader. Having completed these case studies Parpulov then turns to the manufacture of these manuscripts and the respective role of scribes and painters (122-140). A rather unusual version of the Psalter (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, MS Vatic. gr. 752) from ca. 1059, with its complex interweaving of texts and images shapes this discussion. Close observation of this manuscript is then supplemented by the introduction for broader evidence of scribal and painterly practice. Great value is placed upon the scribe's work. It is the scribe who controls the relationship between the new manuscript and its model and in so doing significantly conditions the work performed by the painters of an illuminated manuscript.

At the end of his text Parpulov offers a few suggestions for some projects that pertain to the Psalter. He also finishes by reminding the reader that "a proper, comprehensive and systematic history of Byzantine Psalters is yet to be written" (141). This book, with its intense study of the texts within Byzantine Psalters and its rich and comprehensive engagement with the secondary literature across all the many languages at work in Byzantine Studies provides a fresh new point of departure and an essential reference work. The appendices are an indispensable resource for understanding the extent of the corpus of Byzantine Psalters, their variety, their texts, and their use. Anyone who wishes to work with Byzantine Psalters, no matter their disciplinary identity, will find endless riches in this impressive work of observation and scholarship.

Copyright (c) 2016 Charles Barber

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