21 November 2009

(page from a Latin grammar, copied c. 800)

There was a session on chant in the Carolingian era at AMS. All four papers were awesome. I very much enjoyed Peter Jeffrey's discussion of the dissemination of the Roman liturgy in France. Apparently, the gradual chant was not, in that period, sung from the steps from which it gets its name (gradus=step), but from the same lectern as the Gospel and Epistle; singing from the step was a Frankish innovation, and it stuck. I love details like that.

I have been musing a bit on the last paper read in the session, which dealt with the Carolingian principle of "correctio," that is, correcting errors and doing things in the right manner--from education to liturgy to singing. Textbooks tend to give the impression (at least to me; perhaps others don't read it this way) that the Carolingians were obsessed with standardizing things. Not so, says Susan Rankin. The Carolingians didn't spend much time talking about standardization or making everyone do things the same way--their concern was to do things the right way.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the obsession with standardization comes later, much later. Trent was somewhat problematic in the matter of allowing for growth in the liturgy, but it seems to me that things got worse in the 19th century. The Vatican Gradual might be seen as emblematic of correctness at the expense of legitimate variety. I do not mean to denigrate the monumental work of Solesmes--chant scholarship would hardly exist without them, and certainly the present sad situation would have been (if possible) even worse. Yet there are some small issues with the current Gradual that ought to be addressed, and I don't think that's going to happen any time soon.

I am straying from my main point. What I really wanted to say was that hearing about the Carolingian idea of correctio really rang some bells in my head in regard to the new English translation of the liturgy. In ninth century France, scholars and clergy were concerned about correct texts in prayers because they worried about transmitting incorrect ideas if the prayers were not correct. A change in wording might bring a different theological nuance--one that might be wrong. This was probably especially important in an era with relatively low rates of literacy, because people relied on hearing prayers said rightly. We supposedly have high literacy rates now, but so many in our society are accustomed to passively receiving information that they lack critical faculties for filtering out incorrect information. This makes having a better translation of the liturgy very important: if we do not pray rightly, we will forget how to think rightly about liturgy and theology.

We're not changing the liturgy, but like the medieval monk Gottschalk* who complained that a chant text for the feast of St. John the Baptist was not true to the actual scripture passage, we want to make corrections and improve things so that we can pray rightly. Incidentally, the next generation of students at Gottschalk's monastery did fix the chant text in the next manuscript copies.

*Please note that I in no way endorse some of Gottschalk's other ideas (he was an early advocate of predestination). But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, right?

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