The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity

The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity

The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity

The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity

Excerpt

The complexities of the commentary on and use of the Song of Songs in medieval Europe may seem on first consideration to be of limited interest, addressing only specialists in Christian literature. Actually, the subject is relevant to many aspects of the study of medieval religious culture, for this biblical book asserted a far-reaching impact.Conventional medieval readings of the Song of Songs, for example, influenced the symbolic understanding of the Church and the theological concepts of the relationship between the life of the body and of the soul, and thus between human and divine love. These conventional readings flourished as part of the monastic tradition of biblical commentary, which, I will argue, developed into a genre of medieval Latin literature. The extraordinary literary self-awareness of this tradition is evident in the nearly one hundred extant commentaries and homilies on the Song of Songs written between the sixth and the fifteenth centuries, texts which show great complexity and virtuosity of allegorical interpretation.

Before turning to the definition of this genre, I would like to make a few comments about the difficulties a modern reader may find in approaching medieval exegesis. The exegetical tradition in general, although essential to medieval culture, is only beginning to be studied by modern scholars. An enormous amount of medieval Christian writing, perhaps the greatest single part, was commentary on the Bible; yet these texts have attracted only a small portion of the scholarly attention of medievalists. Not until the landmark work of Beryl Smalley in the middle of this century was medieval exegesis recognized as a legitimate field of study. Writing after Smalley's death, R. W. Southern made specific reference to the debt contemporary medievalists owe to her perception of medieval, rather than modern, literary forms:

In 1927, when Beryl Smalley began to study the Bible in the Middle Ages, I think it would be true to say that the Bible had almost no place in the minds . . .

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