Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Canticum canticorum, with Glossia Ordinaria

Canticum Canticorum, with Glossa Ordinaria

The Canticum canticorum, as held by the prestigious Yale University, is a medieval copy of the Song of Songs from the Old Testament of the Bible. The Song of Songs, which is also known as the Song of Solomon, is a unique pieces of verse from the Bible in that it does not make reference to the Talmudic law nor does it contain references to the supernatural. Instead, the song is about the erotic love between a man and a woman, though Jewish and Christian clergy tend to hold the view that the song is instead an allegory for the love that God holds for those who are faithful to him. As the years went on, the Song of Solomon, so named because it is believed to have been written by the biblical king, was viewed as an allegory for the love of Christ for the Church and even having to do with the Virgin Mary, with the exegesis tied to the book growing ever more complex with each new theory put forward by the clergy.

As for the manuscript itself, the book is 178x127mm, with the writing itself being 102x86mm. The text is written in a large round late Caroline minuscule, with commentaries written in a smaller, though stylistically similar, script. The book’s text is easily legible, and the exegesis is off to the sides so that the main body of text can be read more easily. Dating back to the last quarter of the 12th century, the Canticum canticorum with Glossia Ordinaria has seen quite a bit of wear, with several of the pages damaged by what look like strong impacts to the bottom and several that have been discolored by their advanced age.

When the Canticum canticorum was first accepted into Jewish canon in the 2nd century AD, it was the subject of considerable controversy, owing to it overtly sexual nature. The Song of Songs was permitted because it was believed to have been written by King Solomon and, when read allegorically, it was possible to view it as an allegory for God’s love for the people of Israel. Though admittedly, it can be hard to consider a passage such as this as allegory:

Song of Solomon 3:1
By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth:
I sought him, but I found him not.

Song of Solomon 3:4
It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth:
I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house,
And into the chamber of her that conceived me.

Song of Solomon 4:5
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.

Song of Solomon 5:4
My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

Song of Solomon 5:15
His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold:
His countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.

These are just a few choice verses from the Song of Songs that display its overtly sexual nature, but the belief that these are the words of Solomon himself kept the Canticum canticorum from being lost to the Apocrypha, where all of the books of the Bible that are not considered canon are banished to.

As one would expect for a book whose literal interpretation would be squarely at odds with the doctrine of the medieval church, the Song of Songs would always be read with an extensive exegesis that would explain to the common people how comparisons of breasts to game animals and bowels moving were in fact allegories for God’s love for them, rather than ancient pornography. As one could expect for a book that would require some very creative interpretation to reach the conclusion that the verse was meant to be read in a way that is very different from what is actually on the page, the exegesis commentaries are far longer than the actual Song.

Who actually wrote the Song of Songs is not known, as it has proffered neither an author nor a date of origin within its text, though its similarity to classical Egyptian love poems has led to speculation that it was composed between the 10th and 2nd centuries BC. Indeed, it is not even certain of the Song is the product of only one author, but this has not stopped it from being used by Christians and Jews alike for centuries.

The Song of Solomon is important because it shows that even after centuries religions that adhere to sacred texts, such as the Torah for Judaism, can still adapt should a new chapter for their holy book be discovered and considered authentic. It also demonstrates how religious officials will try to incorporate new finding that are declared canon into the preexisting doctrine through careful study of the document in question and the writing of commentaries to explain to their successors what conclusions they have draw from the text and how they arrived at said conclusions. The Song of Solomon also shows that even powerful clerics aren't above getting a little cheeky when it comes to the religious canon, so long as they are able to justify the inclusion of the new findings with a tie to a well known figure in the religion’s history.


  1. I enjoy the fact that even though the verses in the Song of Solomon are blatantly sexual, the content of the Canticum Canticorum was still considered canon (apparently writing a dirty ditty is okay if you’re King Solomon). I suppose if you have a relatively convincing interpretation of the text, and your audience cannot challenge your claims… and you have more power than everyone, you can get away with anything. I am curious to know how the various exegeses explained the song to negate the wording.

  2. There is something very amusing about the thought of church fathers attempting to convince readers of such a careful interpretation of the text -- I wonder how successful they were in getting their reading to stick among the laity at large, or even among new students in monastic schools. I am also curious if perhaps this text suggests that people in the twelfth century were less puritanical than one might expect; though the exegesis is no doubt thorough and complex, the fact that the text was admitted into canon and studied closely might speak to less strict moral codes than I thought were common for the time period, even with its impressive supposed origin.
    It reminds me somewhat of the classical texts from the same period which were also moralized in glosses by medieval scholars who attempted to frame the often racy language in a manner both more in line with Christian doctrine and completely different from the original meaning. Classical texts were accepted study because they were considered examples of linguistically beautiful writing in Latin, while the Song of Songs was canonized on the merit of its assumed creator, which is an interesting revelation of the Church’s priorities in learning.