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24.01.03 Dolveck/Bourgain (eds.), Pierre Abélard. L’Hymnaire du Paraclet

24.01.03 Dolveck/Bourgain (eds.), Pierre Abélard. L’Hymnaire du Paraclet

Peter Abelard is a figure about whom stereotyped assertions are often made, whether as a logician, as a theologian, or as lover of Heloise. It not widely appreciated that within the medieval period he is the single most prolific writer of hymns (no fewer than 130), as Pascale Bourgain points out in her introduction to this volume. His output was more than double that of the next most prolific medieval hymnodist, Peter Damian (with 60 hymns to his credit). Pascale Bourgain and Franz Dolveck are to be commended for drawing fresh attention to a most remarkable collection of hymns that deserves to be more widely known. In recent decades, only two scholars had previously devoted themselves to studying the hymnal in detail. One was Joseph Szövérffy, who edited Peter Abelard’s Hymnarius Paraclitensis, 2 vols. (Albany-Brookline, 1975), unfortunately over-reliant on the original edition of these hymns by Guido Maria Dreves, within volume 48 of his Analecta hymnica medii aevi (Leipzig, 1905). The other was the great Cistercian scholar and liturgist, Chrysogonus Waddell, OCSO, who produced a two-volume edition and commentary, Hymn Collections from the Paraclete, Cistercian Liturgy Series, 8-9 (Trappist, Kentucky, 1989). Its first volume of introduction and commentary dealt with issues barely touched on by Szövérffy, namely the complex literary and historical questions raised by the key surviving manuscript. Not the least important discovery of Waddell was that Abelard’s remarkable efforts at creating hymns for the entire liturgical cycle, as preserved in a late twelfth-century manuscript (Brussels, Bibliothèque royale 10147-10158), was never implemented in toto at the Paraclete. By examining the Paraclete breviary, preserved in a late fifteenth-century manuscript (Chaumont, Bibliothèque municipale 31), Waddell discovered the Paraclete liturgy in fact combined Cistercian hymns from before the chant reforms of 1148, in other words during the time of Heloise. Waddell’s richly detailed commentary and edition, reproduced from his typescript, is digitally available from the Western Michigan University library website.

This volume offers Abelard’s initial project of a complete hymnal rather than a presentation of the hymns actually sung at the Paraclete. Strictly speaking, the editors do not present a completely new edition with critical apparatus. Strictly speaking the editors do not present a completely new edition with critical apparatus. Rather they offer a text heavily based on that of Waddell, but with occasional corrections. In an appendix, they compare readings offered by Dreves, Szövérffy, and Waddell, but without reference to the readings of the key manuscripts. Since there are no references in this new edition to the manuscripts on which Waddell based his text, it is not possible to identify which hymns were excluded in the celebration of the liturgy. Rather we encounter Abelard’s projected hymnal, divided here into four books. The first three are each introduced by a preface addressed to Heloise, in each of which Abelard reports her complaints that so many hymns were no longer appropriate to the times when they were sung. The first book presents hymns for the daily cycle in each week, from Sunday nocturns to Saturday vespers. The second covers hymns for the major feasts of the Church, including Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The third deals with hymns in relation to the major saints. What is presented here as a fourth book are hymns relating to the triduum, the three holy days of Easter (in fact taken from the Chaumont MS, although this is not indicated here). The volume also includes other hymns for individual saints in whom Abelard had a particular interest (notably Gildas, Denis, and Eustace), again taken from the Chaumont MS.

Perhaps the most helpful aspect of this edition is Bourgain’s introduction, in which she presents both the liturgical context of these hymns and the rules of prosody that Abelard is so careful to follow. As we know from the famous letters of Heloise, Abelard was widely known for his songs about love composed at the time of their affair. Through these hymns, Abelard found a disciplined way of expressing himself in a concise fashion. Whereas the Cistercians only used what they considered to be Ambrosian hymns, Abelard was stirred to create an entirely new corpus. All these hymns have a common literary structure, so were able to be sung to a single melody, known through that of O quanta qualia. One suspects that Heloise’s inclusion of Cistercian hymns into the Paraclete liturgy may have been provoked by desire for melodic variety as much as a gesture of connection to the Cistercian Order.

There is so much one could say about these hymns, which provide a remarkably rich synthesis of Abelard’s understanding of both the universe and the core themes of scripture. The opening hymn of the weekly cycle, Universorum conditor, introduces the creator of the universe, optimal in weight, measure and number, an allusion (not identified here) to Wisdom 11:21. An unfortunate misprint renders mensura as censura, although the French translation of mesure is accurate. In just a few words Abelard communicates his theme that the world is governed by goodness, and that whatever iniquity might do badly, supreme equity arranges well. The annotations to the text are brief in the extreme, and sometimes misleading. Thus, Abelard’s phrase Triplex intelligentia / Diversa praebet fercula (nicely translated as Or trois manières de comprendre / offrent diverses nourritures) attracts a comment that Abelard follows a three-fold rather than four-fold understanding of scripture either through fidelity to Origen or because it was difficult to apply a four-fold model to the days of the week. In fact, Abelard is repeating Gregory the Great’s three-fold understanding of scripture. The third hymn of the Sunday nocturns introduces a phrase drawn from Plato’s Timaeus (In ortum mundi sensilis / Mundus intelligibils), again not identified in any annotation. Moses and Plato are here brought together. The subsequent hymns for the days of the week expound with similar concision themes developed in more depth in Abelard’s Exposito in Hexameron. In the second book, Abelard summarizes in verse the great themes of redemption evident in the great feasts of the Church, while in the third Abelard reflects on the manifestation of these themes in the saints of the Church.

The decision of the editors to provide a minimalist presentation of the text means that readers have to discover for themselves the extraordinary care with which Abelard synthesises his understanding of how divine goodness operates within a world that is naturally good, but in which Christ and the Holy Spirit offer sinful humanity a sure path to redemption. These hymns provide a synthesis of Abelard’s teaching in verse, comparable to the theological sentences that he developed to his students in Paris. Bourgain’s translation into French is of an elegance that matches Abelard’s Latin. She conveys a sense of the pleasure Abelard took in reducing profound themes into a few well-chosen words.

Perhaps the biggest service made by this volume is simply to make Abelard’s hymns more widely available to students of twelfth-century literary and religious culture. His idea was to provide teaching to nuns outside the framework of the schools, at a level deeper than that of analytic discussion. While we might wish for more insights into these hymns, their publication in a form that is more accessible than the typescript volumes of Waddell can only be welcomed.