Wednesday, 7 December 2016

On Williram von Ebersberg's "Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum" (c.1060) as polyphonic text

The 11th century abbot Williram von Ebersberg’s renowned bilingual paraphrase and exegesis of the biblical book of the Song of Songs, “Commentarium in Cantica Canticorum” (c.1060) is notable for its use of Old High German and Latin commentary and elucidation alongside the original Latin prose of St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible. What distinguishes it as a text is its multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and the degree to which the five different elements - though usually presented in 3 columns on the page - interrelate. These five are Jerome’s Latin; the OHG prose translation; the Latin verse translation; the OHG commentary intermingled with Latin terms; and the Latin commentary. In order to determine whether the “Commentarium” is polyphonic, however, we must first turn to a Bakhtinian understanding of what polyphony is.
Polyphony was first used as a literary concept by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)[1]. The word originally stems from the musical term referring to a multiplicity of voices singing two or more independent melodies, particularly prominent in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the sense that Bakhtin meant it, however, polyphony refers to the diversity of points of view represented within one single text. Bakhtin’s predominant example in this regard was the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), and the extent to which, in his major works at least, Dostoyevsky did not limit himself to a single perspective but rather explored a multitude of different views and beliefs. Nor does Dostoyevsky present different characters’ different takes on a situation simply as a number of different angles; instead, Bakhtin argued, Dostoyevsky crafted ‘novels of ideas’, in which differing accounts of existence or differing justifications for actions, often or indeed usually irreconcilable with one another, were permitted to sit side by side, unevenly, and with no authorial proclamation as to which of many was final. Indeed, Bakhtin uses the word ‘unfinalizability’ to distinguish Dostoyevsky’s art, recognising as he did so that people are not fixed, immutable selves but are capable of fluctuating, disagreeing with themselves, and doubling-back to former ideas, and thus it follows that narratives are not fixed, immutable narratives. A person is never fully and utterly revealed to the world, never fully and utterly understood, and neither is a narrative[2]. It also follows that no one person is fully isolated either, since we are all only understood in relation with one another, and the ways in which we shape each other’s ideas or are shaped by them. In some sense, we are all polyglots -- open to a wide array of different social dialects -- though Williram, of course, takes this further in literally laying different languages down on the page.

The Song of Songs - Canticum Canticorum - is ripe for an exploration of different voices, then, given that even in the original Hebrew text it is a work with two voices at the heart of it, ostensibly love verses recited by a male and female lover to each other. Rather than permitting the uncomfortably sexual undertones of the work, but still conceding it ought to remain canonical given it was ascribed to Solomon, St Jerome rendered it in as prosaic a Latin as possible. By Williram’s day the theological understanding of the Canticum Canticorum was primarily that it was an allegory, with the bridegroom representing Christ, and the bride Christ’s church on Earth. This remains broadly intact in Williram’s version, beginning with the ‘Vox Synagogae’ as Christ’s coming is awaited, and seguing to the ‘Vox Ecclesiae’ once the love between Christ and the people of the world has been established by his good news. The remainder of the Canticum Canticorum sees the ‘Vox Ecclesiae’ (represented by the bride) and the ‘Vox Christi’ (represented by the groom) speak in alternating exchanges.
Rather than simply alternating between the two voices, however - as we would find in the Vulgate texts - Williram provides us with a number of different ones: most notably the aforementioned Latin and OHG commentaries, both of which elaborate on the original verse as written in prose Latin by St Jerome. The Latin verse commentary exists in Leoninic hexameter (hexameters themselves being a verse form used by both Homer and Virgil), in which long lines are tightly wound together with internal rhymes and separated by a single caesura; through the Latin “Versfassung” Williram restores to it the poetic form which Jerome’s word choice lacks. He is often helped in this regard by the flexibility of word order in Latin verse and the ease with which some of its grammatical constructions permit this variety of internal rhyme (take Canto 1,3a: ‘sic ungentorum/currens in odore tuorum’, in which the genitive plural of both ‘ungentorum’ and ‘tuorum’ permits a ready-made rhyme structure).
Needless to say, the Latin verse rendition of Jerome’s words has a different effect to the OHG written opposite it on the other side of the page; while Sonderegger describes the Latin verse as “dichterisch gestaltet” he opines that the OHG commentary “wirkt kühler und distanzierter.”[3] Part of this, perhaps, comes from the fact that Williram chooses to keep words such as prophetas and evangelium in Canto 1:1a in their Latin form as part of the OHG commentary, despite the fact that their equivalents wîzzago and bótscaf existed in OHG and had been in use since the 8th century[4]; there is thus no doubt that he could have used the OHG terms, should he have felt an imperative to do so. Instead he chooses to emphasise the Latin in the midst of the OHG, interweaving the two in a manner in which he does not let them mingle elsewhere. In this particular instance, these two words ‘enfold’ the OHG words in a kind of cadenza, adding rhythm by appearing at the beginning and end of the short OHG passage (and throughout the Canticum Canticorum, indeed, it is notable that the Latin often appears at the end of sentences or phrases, as though it is being given the final word). These Latin words endow the OHG with an antique nobility which allows it to stand as part of the antique literary tradition which the medieval German era had inherited from Roman poetry (“die frühmittelhochdeutsche Zeit ist die Zeit der mittellateinischen Literatur”[5]), and indeed which allow him to get away with the more sensuous Latin verse translation on the left-hand side of the page.
 The text also uses older Latin words of antiquity (vatis, seer/soothsayer/augur) to refer to the prophets of the Old Testament, with the implication that even the ‘heathen’ religious figures of antiquity - anyone who could predict the future - are bound to Christ’s gospel message, and thus linking the lexical field of OHG to the flowering of Roman literature in the Augustinian period. Dulcia verba, for instance, has an Ovidian ring to it and strongly resembles the kind of things one of Ovid’s narrators might have whispered in his lover’s ear whilst, say, at the races; “in matters of taste” Mark Chinca labels this period of German literature an “aetas Ovidiana”[6]. This binding of the Christian Germanic world with the literature of antiquity - a familiar element of medieval German verse - is part of the translatio imperii idea, in which Gospel theology was seen as both the natural development of antique thinking behind the Roman Empire (e.g. Virgil) and Grecian mythology (e.g. Homer), but also as a direct alternative in the 11th century revival of learning, indeed a worthy replacement. Williram even aims to retain the grammatical structure of Latin in OHG as far as possible, rendering ‘osculetur’ (“he may kiss me”) as ‘cússer’ instead of ‘cúss er’, thus taking the unusual step of amalgamating the verb and the pronoun to form one word as in the Latin. In the OHG commentary, then, we have the echoes of one distinct register (the world of antiquity) couched in the vernacular of another (the OHG of the 11th century): the distinguished notes of one history of voices resounding in the midst of another.
We must return to the two voices at the heart of the Song of Songs, however - Christ and the church, bridegroom and bride. The five different ‘components’ of Williram’s work are conventionally placed together on one page, in three interlocking columns, as though the OHG commentary and the Latin verse are as equally deserving to be uttered by Christ or the church as Jerome’s Latin prose. This helps us to see the OHG and the Latin paraphrases as part of the conversation between the two, not just as the commentary of a scholar, and in so doing bestows theological weight upon them. In this regard, it is fitting that the Canticum Canticorum is referred to as an opus geminum (a ‘twin work’), of one body in the middle girdled by two parts, since it reflects the fundamentally dual nature of the text: a dialogue must comprise of two voices.
Can the “Commentarium in Cantico Canticorum” then be said to be polyphonic? I would suggest that Bakhtin’s term, while apt in some senses, is not the best descriptor, since in the sense that Bakhtin meant it a form of conflict is implied -- between differing ideals, differing world views. Williram’s Song of Songs is remarkably harmonious, with the Old High German and the Latin fixed on similar goals and serving alongside one another as bedfellows rather than antitheses. While there are certainly different phrasings of the same material to be made - and Williram does make them - and while the irruption of Latin words into OHG passages may give us the sensation of one voice echoing another, the text is still best read, in terms of its content at least, in the form of two interlocking voices singing what might now be called a duet. Far from proposing the “unfinalizability” of human beings and the multifaceted voices in any one narrative, Williram von Ebersberg’s “Commentarium” asserts that the ‘Vox Ecclesiae’ will ultimately find its rest in the ‘Vox Christi’ and that it is this harmony and perfection which we are to strive for here on Earth.

  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, translated by Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  2. Bertau, Karl, Deutsche Literatur im europäischen Mittelalter: Band I, C.H. Beck, 1972.
  3. Braune, Wilhelm (ed.), Althochdeutsches Lesebuch, Max Niemeyer, 1994.
  4. Dittrich, Marie-Luise, "Willirams von Ebersberg Bearbeitung der Cantica Canticorum", in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 82. Bhd., H ½, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1948.
  5. Dittrich, Marie-Luise, "Die literarische Form von Willirams Expositio in Cantica Canticorum", in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 84. Bhd., H 3, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1953.
  6. Lähnemann, Henrike & Rupp, Michael (eds.), Expositio in Cantica Canticorum: Text und Übersetzung, Walter de Gruyter, 2004.
  7. Müller, Stephan (ed.), Althochdeutsche Literatur: Eine kommentierte Anthologie (Zweisprachig), Reclam, 2007.
  8. Schmid, Hans Ulrich, "Nachträge zur Überlieferung von Willirams Paraphrase des Hohen Liedes", in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 113. Bhd., H 4, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1984.
  9. Schützeichel, Rudolf & Meineke, Birgit (eds.), Die älteste Überlieferung von Willirams Kommentar des Hohen Liedes, Edition. Übersetzung. Glossar, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001.
  10. Sonderegger, Stefan, Althochdeutsche Sprache und Literatur (3. Auflage), de Gruyter, 2003.
  11. Zerfaß, Christiane, Die Allegorese zwischen Latinität und Volkssprache: Willirams von Ebersberg „Expositio in cantica canticorum“, Kümmerle Verlag, Göppingen, 1995.

[1]Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, translated by Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
[2]Though this may sound as though it reflects a more modern understanding of the world, Bakhtin had strong roots in Christianity and knew well the degree to which certain Christian schools of thought emphasised the individual as an individual, and of the soul as something almost infinitely variable, rather than merely one of many. Christianity, of course, is the most obvious aspect which binds Bakhtin and Williram von Ebersberg together, given that Williram’s text is an exegesis of one of the more controversial books of the Old Testament.
[3]Sonderegger, Stefan, Althochdeutsche Sprache und Literatur (3. Auflage), de Gruyter, 2003
[4]Dittrich, Marie-Luise, "Willirams von Ebersberg Bearbeitung der Cantica Canticorum", in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur, 82. Bhd., H ½, S. Hirzel Verlag, 1948.
[5]Zerfaß, Christiane, Die Allegorese zwischen Latinität und Volkssprache: Willirams von Ebersberg „Expositio in cantica canticorum“, Kümmerle Verlag, Göppingen, 1995.
[6]Chinca, Mark, ‘Heinrich von Veldeke und Ovid’, Medium Aevum, 1995.

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