Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Re-Classicizing Bede?: Hrabanus Maurus on Prosody and Meter

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Re-Classicizing Bede?: Hrabanus Maurus on Prosody and Meter

Article excerpt

HRABANUS MAURUS (ca. 780-856) composed his treatise Excerptio de arte grammatica Prisciani (1) as a compendium of rules on syllable lengths to supplement the teaching and reading of prosodic literature and facilitate the scansion and composition of Latin verse. As a considerable amount of Christian poetry in classical meters had come to existence in Late Antiquity and many of these texts continued to be studied and emulated, the study of metrics was considered an indispensable part of a monastic scholars education, rendered ultimately very difficult by the disappearance of syllable quantity from the spoken Latin of the period. Especially from the late eighth century onwards, Priscian's discussion of syllable lengths in his encyclopedic Institutiones grammaticae (ca. 500) (2) proved an invaluable source to medieval scholars in their attempts to develop a comprehensive theoretical presentation of syllable prosody. Despite the possibly inauthentic name of Hrabanus's treatise, his Excerptio is not simply an abridged version of Priscian, but a compilation of the presentations of prosody he had found in the grammatical writings of Late Antiquity; in this he relied not only on Priscian but also on Diomedes, Isidore, and, most notably, Donatus, whose Artes grammaticae provided him with the basic layout of his treatise. (3) Ultimately, Hrabanus also resorted to Bede's De arte metrica, a work that appears to have been the standard guide to metrics of the Carolingian schoolroom. (4) The integration of Priscian's broadly inclusive approach with Bede's normative attempt to excise "pagan" influences from prosody and metrics posed an obvious challenge to Hrabanus. The Carolingians' newly found interest in the pre-Christian classics meant that Bede's metrical theory had to be reinterpreted in a way that would, at least on the surface, make it compatible with the teaching of classical verse. This paper discusses Hrabanus's presentation of common syllables, which, although largely identical with Bede, has frequently undergone subtle rephrasing at Hrabanus's hands. It will emerge that although Hrabanus did not openly question Bede's views on "pagan" and "Christian" prosody as such, his presentation of this dichotomy is considerably more moderate than his predecessor's. At the same time it demonstrates how classical authors, largely excised from Bede's treatise, begin to reemerge as useable models for verse composition in the Carolingian age.

PAGAN LEARNING AND CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE: BEDE'S DE ARTE METRICA

The relationship between Christianity and the pagan literary heritage was troubled from the start, as demonstrated by Jerome's oft-cited nightmare vision where he was accused of being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian. (5) It is understandable that Jerome viewed his "Ciceronianism" as a guilty pleasure; like many of his Christian contemporaries, he was quite open in his admiration of the pre-Christian classics, which led to some rather complex maneuvers in their attempts to reconcile Christian and secular learning. Jerome found pagan poetry and rhetoric a useful tool for the defense of Christian truths (6) and, together with other early Christian authors, even made the bold claim that, e.g., hexameters and pentameters could be found in Scripture. (7) This may have been primarily an attempt to refute claims that Christians were cultural upstarts, but later served to enforce the role of poetry and metrics in Christian education: if Moses had known and used the hexameter, why should not they? Correspondingly, Late Antiquity saw the emergence of Christian epic poetry composed in classical meters. Although it would be tempting to see them merely as an awkward effort to supplant pagan authors in the school curriculum, (8) the Christian "Bible epics" of Sedulius, Juvencus, and Arator probably constitute earnest attempts to provide a tool for meditation on Scripture. (9) At the same time, a large number of Christian hymns, most prominently those of Ambrose, Prudentius, and Sedulius, were composed in forms that adhered to the classical rules of syllable quantity, which indicates the strong classical background of the early Christian hymnodists; as the hymns were intended to be sung, such prosodic considerations would otherwise appear inconsequential. …

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