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Chapter 1 - Interpretive Theories and Traditions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 February 2020

Andrew Kraebel
Trinity University, Texas


This chapter seeks to intervene in recent discussions of scholastic exegetical theory, arguing that general discussions of scholastic hermeneutics (of the sort found in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, for example) must be read against the widely varying and often inconsistent interpretive priorities and approaches that developed, over the course of centuries, in successive commentaries on individual biblical books. The very idea of a general biblical hermeneutic was relatively uncommon (or at least much more constrained) before the scholastic period, and such general scholastic theories only served to create yet more interpretive-theoretical variegation. The intersection – or, rather, the canny deployment – of such competing theoretical claims is exemplified through sustained readings of three commentaries on the Psalter by English exegetes of the 1310s and 1320s, Thomas Waleys, Nicholas Trevet, and Henry Cossey, all three of which remain unedited and, before now, almost entirely unstudied. Cossey in particular emerges as a shrewd critic of recent developments in interpretive theory.

Biblical Commentary and Translation in Later Medieval England
Experiments in Interpretation
, pp. 21 - 53
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

In the middle decades of the fourteenth century, Henry of Kirkestede osb (d. c. 1378), librarian and later prior of Bury St. Edmunds, compiled his Catalogus de Libris Autenticis et Apocrifis. Now preserved only in Thomas Tanner’s seventeenth-century transcription, the Catalogus is an alphabetic listing of nearly seven hundred classical and medieval authors, their works, and a selection of the English libraries in which those works could be found. Following the catalogue proper, Henry includes an index recording the “nomina doctorum qui scribunt super Bibliam” (“names of doctors who write about the Bible”), essentially a listing of commentaries organized, generally, by biblical book (Fig. 2).1 For each book, Henry seems to have assembled an initial list of commentators drawn from the catalogue, with additional names appended out of alphabetical order at the end of each list, perhaps indicating that the index, like the catalogue itself, was a work-in-progress. Indeed, Henry must have updated the index and catalogue independently of one another, since some of the authors added to the index do not appear in the catalogue, and many exegetes noted in the catalogue are omitted from the index.2 An invaluable bibliographical resource, the Catalogus indicates how widely different texts circulated in fourteenth-century England,3 and the index in particular records (albeit imperfectly) the range of biblical commentaries on which later medieval English exegetes could draw. At the same time, in the way its offerings are organized, the index can help to illustrate an important and largely unappreciated aspect of medieval commentary – namely, the range of distinct interpretive priorities and practices that developed surrounding different books of the Bible.

Figure 2 CUL MS Add. 3470, p. 150 (detail).

It has become customary, following the work of Beryl Smalley, to discuss the history of medieval biblical scholarship in terms of the varying fortunes of the literal and spiritual senses, with Smalley’s narrative of the rise of literalistic exegesis challenged (though not, I think, overturned) by Henri de Lubac’s insistence on the continued importance of mystical meanings.4 This emphasis on general interpretive theories, however, shared by Smalley and de Lubac, has the potential to obscure the complex hermeneutic variety witnessed in the commentaries themselves. As will become clear in the examples discussed throughout this study, medieval exegetes worked with sometimes radically different ideas of what constituted the literal meaning of a biblical book, and by focusing on the literal sense, in contrast to, say, the tropological sense, we run the risk of effacing these disagreements and the divergent interpretations they supported. Further, even when they agreed on one or another definition of the scriptural senses, medieval commentators only rarely insisted that a single interpretation exhausted the possible meanings of a passage, and as Gilbert Dahan has noted, they often seem to delight in piling up alternatives, reveling in the richness (literal and spiritual) of the text they glossed.5 The range of different theories underpinning scholastic biblical exegesis, what we might call the variegation of scholastic hermeneutics, in large part reflects and results from the practice of commentary in the medieval schools and universities, where exegetes tended to focus their interpretive energies on individual biblical books. Not only did these different books require the consultation of different authoritative patristic sources – composed in various circumstances to meet various local needs, none neatly anticipating the scholastic classroom – but, as we will see, medieval commentators also recognized the formal diversity of Scripture qua compilation, and they developed different interpretive approaches to find meaning in these diverging textual forms. Certainly, beginning late in the eleventh century, exegetes increasingly turned to a recurring set of interpretive categories, identified by Richard Hunt and discussed by Alastair Minnis as some of the hallmarks of scholastic literalism – now-familiar headings such as the intentio auctoris and modus procedendi – but the commentators’ use of these terms can vary considerably, often depending on the interpretive history of the specific scriptural text they seek to gloss.6 Likewise, the interpretive theories advanced in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century summae and quaestiones, presented as applying to any biblical book, in practice only served to introduce more hermeneutic variety, more ways of potentially reading the same text. And even as they seem typically to have thought of themselves as working within a commentary tradition specific to a single book, commentators were certainly aware of the priorities and approaches on offer in the interpretive histories of other parts of Scripture, divergent hermeneutics which, like other new sources of exegetical insight, could allow them to present their own new interpretations.

On the one hand, then, focus on the sensus Scripturae can have the unfortunate effect of making medieval biblical commentary appear totalizing or reductive, with commentators striving to reach a single meaning, or at most, with four senses, four related and mutually informing meanings.7 The tralatitious or accretive nature of these commentaries, on the other hand, their tendency to quarry glosses from the authoritative sources of late antiquity, can support a misunderstanding of medieval exegesis as plodding, dull, or derivative, so many theories attempting to justify predetermined interpretations, even when that interpretive inheritance is acknowledged as diverse and contradictory. The commentaries themselves tell a different story, especially when they are read as part of the longer interpretive history of specific biblical books.8 Commentators viewed their task as at once preserving the best interpretive offerings of their forebears – a priority which could lead them to read deep into their book’s exegetical history, consulting patristic originalia and various earlier medieval commentaries and compilations – and finding new ways to open the text to new meanings, bringing new sources and different interpretive theories to bear on an inexhaustibly significant text.

One way to identify these understandings of the task of scholastic exegesis is to look to the surviving commentaries, to consider their engagement with their interpretive antecedents and their efforts to find meaning in the text they glossed. Such an account forms the core of this chapter, focusing on three little-studied Latin commentaries on the Psalter by English writers in the late 1310s and 1320s. Before turning to these works, however, it will be useful to consider in more detail the contours of the tradition in which they wrote and the range of interpretive approaches available to them, at least partially sketched in Henry of Kirkestede’s index.

The interpretive histories preserved, almost like a fossilization, in Henry’s lists provide a striking visualization suggesting how these commentary traditions formed, and how they were received by scholastic writers.9 His unusually full listing of Psalter commentaries, reproduced in Figure 2, reveals the successive stages of interpretive activity surrounding this specific book, with at least some of the works produced at every stage available to one or another exegete in fourteenth-century England.10 The earliest major authorities are the commentaries of Augustine (d. 430), originating as a series of sermons, and Cassiodorus (d. c. 585), who made an initial attempt to refine Augustine’s interpretations in light of the formal insights about psalmic poetry he found in the writings of Jerome (d. 420).11 The commentary attributed to Jerome on Henry’s list is actually a pseudonymous early medieval production, but it too exercised considerable influence on later writers, as did Ambrose’s (d. 397) gloss of Ps. 118 (the long acrostic Beati immaculati) and other selected psalms. In contrast, the late addition of Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368) at the very end of Henry’s list is fitting, since his work seems to have been only infrequently consulted by medieval commentators.12 The selective compilation of these early glosses then fell to exegetes of the ninth century, such as Remigius of Auxerre (d. 908), who added abundant interpretations of his own, typically reflecting ways of reading borrowed from his work with Servius’s treatment of Virgil.13 Remigius’s approach was further refined by the bevy of exegetes active in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, who continued to compile patristic glosses, as well as glosses from Remigius and other earlier medieval writers, supplemented with their novel interpretations and increasingly elaborate prologues. Especially influential was the Magna glosatura of Peter Lombard (d. 1160), which became a standard text and was, in turn, supplemented by more selective treatments, such as the partial commentary by Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253), through the early decades of the next century.14 At this point, it is easy enough to discern a clear set of priorities developing in the tradition of Latin exegesis on the Psalms, with commentators increasingly seeking ways to describe and interpret the text’s poetic qualities, and in particular its status as a collection of lyric poems (lyrica carmina, variations on which occur throughout these works).15 The details of this approach will be described at length below, but for now we should simply note how significantly it diverges from the interpretive priorities that had by the same time come to the fore in commentaries on, for example, the Gospel of Matthew. Not only did the patristic authorities (e.g., Augustine’s Quaestiones in Evangeliorum and Quaestiones XVI in Matthaeum) and early medieval compilations (e.g., Hrabanus Maurus’s careful marginal accounting of his patristic sources) differ in kind from pre-scholastic sources on the Psalter, but the gospel’s narrative of Levantine history drove commentators to different extra-exegetical works (e.g., Josephus’s Antiquities) and focused their attention on very different literary interpretive issues, especially the status of parables.16 Through the twelfth century, producing commentaries on the Psalms and Matthew were distinctive, though of course not wholly unrelated, interpretive undertakings.

Such efforts only become more complicated in the thirteenth century, when, in addition to the continuing influence of these book-specific traditions, exegetes were increasingly presented with general statements of hermeneutic theory that seemingly applied to the whole of Holy Writ. At least in part, scholastic theorists recognized the hermeneutic diversity of earlier book-specific traditions, and some attempted to accommodate their differing demands when formulating their general statements of scriptural interpretation.17 Beginning in the eleventh century, as noted above, commentary prologues included some consideration of a biblical book’s modus procedendi, accounting for the particular “stylistic and rhetorical qualities of the authoritative text.”18 (This understanding of modus should be distinguished from its use as an equivalent to forma tractatus or the structure of the text, e.g., modus bipartitus.) In the thirteenth century, this range of book-specific prologue discussions was incorporated into accounts of exegetical theory more generally, such as the Summa Alexandri assembled by the students of Alexander of Hales ofm (d. 1245). On the question of whether the mode (modus) of the Old Testament is uniform or manifold, Alexander favors multiplicity:

In Lege est modus praeceptivus, in historicis modus historicus, exemplificativus, in libris Salomonis modus exhortativus, in Psalmis modus orativus, in Prophetis modus revelativus. Relinquitur ergo non esse modum uniformem in libris Veteris Testamenti.19

In the Law the mode is preceptive, in histories the mode is historical [or/and?] exemplary, in the books of Solomon the mode is exhortative, in the Psalms the mode is prayerful, in the Prophets the mode is revelatory. It therefore follows that there is not a uniform mode in the books of the Old Testament.

This list was later expanded in the Breviloquium of Alexander’s fellow Franciscan, Bonaventure (d. 1274). After praising the profundity of its mysteries, Bonaventure addresses the question of Scripture’s mode:

In tanta igitur multiformitate sapientiae, quae continetur in ipsius sacrae Scripturae latitudine, longitudine, altitudine, et profundo, unus est communis modus procedendi, authenticus videlicet, intra quem continetur modus narrativus, praeceptorius, prohibitivus, exhortativus, praedicativus, comminatorius, promissivus, deprecatorius et laudativus. Et omnes hi modi sub uno modo authentico reponuntur, et hoc quidem satis recte.20

In the manifold complexity of the wisdom contained in the width, length, height, and depth of Holy Scripture, there is one common mode of proceeding, namely the authentic, within which are contained modes that are narrative, preceptive, prohibitive, exhortative, predicative, threatening, promising, prayerful, and laudatory. And all of these modes come within the one authentic mode, and this rightly enough.

The “authentic” modus procedendi used in Scripture serves to distinguish it from other texts that employ logical reasoning (ratiocinationes) and proceed by definition, division, and inference (definitivum, divisivum, et collectivum).21 Within this general mode are many different modi, which can easily be identified with different biblical books, especially insofar as Bonaventure’s list overlaps with Alexander’s. In light of this multiplicity, it should be unsurprising that Bonaventure goes on to assert that “Scriptura in his locis variis non est uniformiter exponenda” (207: “Scripture should not be interpreted uniformly in these different places”). By acknowledging the different modes of biblical books, as well as the different exegetical strategies required by this modal variety, Bonaventure can advance a general hermeneutic theory that leaves room for the range of approaches developed in the interpretive histories of specific books.

Thomas Aquinas appears to agree with Alexander and Bonaventure regarding the diversity of biblical modes, and in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms – included on Henry’s list – he briefly contrasts the “mode of praise and prayer” (“modum laudis et orationis”) used in that book with the narrative, admonitory, exhortative, preceptive, and disputative modes found elsewhere in Scripture.22 In his general discussions of biblical hermeneutics, however, those found in the Summa Theologiae (1a.1.10) and among his quodlibetal questions, Thomas does not once mention the notion of modus. Instead, his focus is on the four senses of Scripture, emphasizing in particular the literal sense. He thus explains, in what has become a classic formulation, that the literal or historical meaning of the text is “illa … qua voces significant res. … Illa vero significatio qua res significatae per voces iterum res alias significant dicitur sensus spiritualis, qui super litteralem fundatur et eum supponit” (“that … whereby the words signify things. … That meaning, however, whereby the things signified by the words in turn also signify other things is called the spiritual sense; it is based on and presupposes the literal sense”).23 This notion of the senses works especially well when interpreting books that narrate Old Testament history, as Thomas acknowledges in his quodlibet (7.6.a2 ad 5); in such cases, literal interpretation is focused on recovering the actions of historical figures, while spiritual meanings inhere in those figures and actions.24 At the same time, Thomas notes the uneven applicability of this scheme, observing that some biblical books treat on their literal level what appears to be proper to allegory, and these books thus do not have a discrete allegorical sense, while others “que moraliter dicuntur secundum sensum litteralem, non consuerunt exponi nisi anagogice” (“which are spoken morally according to their literal sense, can typically only be expounded anagogically”).25 By this last statement, Thomas appears to mean that, when a text’s literal sense is taken up with tropologies, the anagogical is then the only spiritual sense that remains for the exegete to explore: there is no allegory, and there is no tropology apart from what is contained in the literal sense. At this point, some reconciliation of the theories of mode and sense appears possible, since it could be inferred that, for example, something written in the modus exhortativus would, according to this scheme, be expounded tropologically according to its literal sense.26 But Thomas ignores such questions, and he is therefore able to avoid the hermeneutic complexity that the issue of modes would introduce, offering instead a general theory of interpretation that purports to apply, without variation, to any scriptural text.27 Further, though the caveats in his quodlibet imply a need for different approaches to different biblical books, we will see that, in his later commentaries, Thomas tends to read even the Psalter in a way that emphasizes its relation to biblical-historical narrative.

These totalizing commitments are taken further by one of Thomas’s most prolific and influential followers, Nicholas of Lyre ofm (d. 1349), whose name appears immediately before Thomas’s on Henry’s list of Psalter commentators. Writing in Paris early in the fourteenth century, Lyre first commented on the literal sense of the Bible in its entirety (his literal postils, composed 1322–29), and he subsequently glossed the text again, producing a much briefer commentary on its moral sense (1333–39).28 In the general preface to the first of these works, Lyre is at pains to emphasize the novelty of his undertaking, quickly dismissing the efforts of his exegetical forebears: “Licet multa bona dixerunt, tamen parum tetigerunt literalem sensum: sensus mysticos in tantum multiplicauerunt, quod sensus literalis inter tot expositiones mysticas incertus, partim suffocatur” (“Although they have said many good things, yet they have touched the literal sense too little, and they have multiplied the mystical senses to such an extent that the literal sense, uncertain among so many mystical interpretations, is somewhat suffocated”).29 This wholesale criticism of earlier exegetes, which retrospectively (and misleadingly) classifies their interpretive priorities as non-literal, appears to signal Lyre’s affiliation with the relatively recent Thomistic formulation of the literal sense. These postils will be literalistic, that is, because they will conform to Thomas’s theories of interpretation – but they will also extend them. At least with regard to the Old Testament, Lyre declares that he will be able to offer a more accurate reading of the literal sense by having recourse to Hebrew manuscripts (ad codices Hebraeorum), and he further notes his intention “non solum dicta doctorum Catholicorum sed etiam Hebraicorum, maxime Rabbi Salomonis, … [ad] declarationem sensus literalis inducere” (“to include for the declaration of the literal sense … not only the sayings of Catholic but also of Hebrew doctors, and especially Rabbi Solomon [i.e., Rashi]”).30 Though Thomas lacked Lyre’s facility with the language, this interest in a literal sense grounded in the Hebrew text is already evident in his work on the Psalms, where Thomas routinely draws variants from other Latin translations in an attempt to get closer to the original.31 As his prologue suggests, then, Lyre’s postils attempt to show how Thomas’s general interpretive theories can indeed be applied in commentary on all books of the Bible.

Very few later exegetes were as thoroughly Thomistic as Lyre, however, even when Thomas’s commentaries figured among their major sources. Instead, most fourteenth-century scriptural glosses, whether in Latin or the vernacular, represent a negotiation of the hermeneutic priorities suggested in Henry’s lists, on the one hand, and, on the other, those proposed by Thomas and exemplified in Lyre’s literal postils. In many cases, it could be that the choice between these interpretive approaches was made without much thought, as a commentator either responded to what he found in his antecedents or simply favored what was convenient, because his interests in writing a commentary were not wholly motivated by questions of hermeneutic theory. But at least some exegetes actively and intentionally sought to grapple with the problem of reconciling recent scholastic interpretive theories with the book-specific traditions within which they wrote. For these writers, decisions regarding their interpretive approach could be motivated by intellectual allegiances, expectations of their audience’s interests or abilities, a desire to represent a range of interpretive options, or perhaps even by an aspiration to academic prestige and professional preferment.

In the late 1310s and 1320s, at almost the same time as Lyre was at work on his postils, three English exegetes faced these problems of hermeneutic reconciliation in their commentaries on the Psalms.32 In a way that seems to repeat the overshadowing of contemporary exegesis after the success of the Glossa ordinaria in the twelfth century, the works of Henry Cossey ofm (d. 1336), Nicholas Trevet op (d. c. 1334), and Thomas Waleys op (d. c. 1349) were all relative failures compared with the wide dissemination of Lyre’s postils, and none survives in more than a handful of manuscripts.33 Yet, in their differing responses to recent developments in interpretive theory, these exegetes help to illustrate the continuing importance of book-specific interpretive traditions, an importance which Lyre’s success has largely effaced. All three claim to comment on the Psalter’s literal sense, presenting varying understandings of literalistic exegesis that reflect the interpretive priorities found (sometimes implicitly) in earlier commentaries as well as those advanced in generalizing scholastic theories. And all three offer ideas of the Psalter’s literal sense that depart, sometimes significantly, from Lyre’s more popular postils.

Of the three, only Waleys wrote his commentary outside of England, preparing it in the course of his duties as lector to the Dominican studium in Bologna, beginning in 1326.34 The survival of four English copies, however, suggests that Waleys put the work into circulation after his return to Oxford, c. 1342.35 This incomplete commentary, which ends in the course of glossing Ps. 38.2, provides a useful starting point, in part because, though he may have been familiar with Aquinas’s gloss on the Psalter, Waleys prefers to follow the approach to the literal sense found in, especially, the Lombard’s mid-twelfth-century Magna glosatura. His work therefore presents an opportunity to consider in more detail the tensions between the priorities of this source and more recent Thomistic literalism. Waley’s preference for the literalism of the older Glosatura should not be taken as a sign that his glosses are boringly derivative, however, and we will see that he is committed to discovering new ways to read these psalms. His innovations simply avoid matters of interpretive theory, and his hermeneutic conservativism is a matter of convenience.

The Indifferent Conservative: Thomas Waleys

After comparing earthly liturgical singing to “the spiritual incense of the angelic hosts” (“exercituum celestium spiritale thimiama”), the Oxford-trained Dominican Thomas Waleys concludes the prologue to his Psalms commentary with a prayer for his students and readers:

Huius operis et exercituum non solum participes sunt verba Dauid in ecclesiis c[a]nti[ta]ntes, sed in scholis eadem legentes et audientes, vt merito sperare possint illud quod eis promittitur, Apoc. 1: Beatus qui legit et qui audit verba prophetiae huius.36

Not only those who sing David’s words in churches, but also those who read and hear them in the schools partake in this work and are fellows of these [angelic] hosts, so that they might rightly hope for what has been promised to them, Apoc. 1.3: Blessed is he who reads and hears the words of this prophecy.

Assuring his audience that their study of the Psalter will be met with the same heavenly reward as the text’s regular devotional recitation, Waleys seems to acknowledge that these two activities are somehow distinct, that study and prayer involve different approaches to the Psalms. As Monika Otter describes it, devotional reading or singing, whether in private or as part of a liturgical performance, depends on an appropriation of a psalmic voice “that is both intimate and public,” at once an expression of the individual’s private prayers and potentially shared with other readers.37 In this regard, the Psalms are “the definitive form” of what David Lawton has called “public interiorities,” presenting “the voice of another, available to others to voice, and an address to God that may be limitlessly personal.”38 As we will see, the question of voice, and even the cultivation of a voice potentially appropriable by other readers, factors prominently in scholastic Psalter exegesis, but commentators approach this issue as part of a larger consideration that begins, primarily, with a specific understanding of the authorship and composition of the Psalms. That is, scholastic exegetes like Waleys sought to recover the potential meanings of the Psalms as texts composed under specific historical circumstances by their prophetic human author, and it is insofar as the Psalmist designed his texts with later readers in mind that, according to these exegetes, they support the creation of prayerful public interiorities.

The Psalmist, Peter Lombard writes, was the most outstanding of prophets (eximius prophetarum), a writer who “digniori atque excellentiori modo … quam alii prophetavit” (“prophesied in a more worthy and excellent way than others”).39 While other prophets describe visions or record angelic messages without necessarily grasping their import, David was able to perceive and meditate upon the details of future salvation history. As another early scholastic commentator notes, “Diuina inspiratione dominicam incarnationem praeuiderat et humani generis reparationem et ediderat scriptam” (“With divine inspiration he foresaw the Lord’s incarnation and the restoration of the human race, and he committed it to writing”).40 But the Psalmist did not simply write prosaic descriptions of his prophetic insights. Rather, with the details of Christ’s life and humanity’s salvation in mind, he composed the Psalter as a series of lyric poems, concealing his knowledge behind a screen of literary conventions. This notion of the Psalter’s poetic qualities led commentators to adopt a variety of interpretive strategies, including invoking different literary devices (aposiopesis, apostrophe, hendiadys, litotes, polyptoton, etc.) to explain certain details of the text. Likewise, commentators gave particular attention to the identification of the voice (vox or persona) they believed David to assume in each psalm, frequently suggesting that he wrote entire psalms in the voice of the prophesied Church or, indeed, of Christ. The Psalter’s Christological content could thus be recovered as part of the meaning intended by its human author.

This book-specific approach proved difficult to reconcile with the general theories of interpretation described above, those advanced by Thomas Aquinas and his followers.41 Though Thomas praises David for the glorious clarity (gloriosa claritas) of his prophecy, he also describes the Psalter’s prophetic content in a way that limits the human author’s involvement. In the preface to his commentary, Thomas writes that the Psalms

sunt exponendi de rebus gestis ut figurantibus aliquid de Christo vel ecclesia. … Prophetiae autem aliquando dicuntur de rebus quae tunc temporis erant, sed non principaliter dicuntur de eis, sed inquantum figura sunt futurorum, et ideo Spiritus sanctus ordinavit quod quando talia dicuntur, inserantur quaedam quae excedunt conditionem illius rei gestae, ut animus elevetur ad figuratum.42

ought to be expounded about things done as figuring something about Christ or the Church. … Prophecies are sometimes said about things which were then present, but they are not principally said about these things, but only inasmuch as they are figures of future things, and the Holy Ghost then ordained that when such things were read, something would be planted which would exceed the condition of the thing that was done, so that the mind would be elevated to the thing that was figured.

According to this view, echoing Thomas’s earlier theoretical discussions, the human author of the Psalms seems to have written about contemporary events (res gestae) – and, in his glosses, Thomas does tend to identify the events of David’s life as the subject matter of the Psalter’s literal sense. It is only because of the divine inspiration guiding the text’s composition that figures of Christ and the Church can be discerned in the Psalmist’s accounts of these events. Certainly, Thomas does not claim that David was unaware of the Psalter’s prophetic prefigurations, but such awareness would seem to be unnecessary in the hermeneutic scheme he describes. There is thus a potential disconnect in Thomas’s prologue between the considerable prophetic knowledge enjoyed by David, who had been taught about the truth without mediation (nude doctus fuit de veritate), and the composition of his text, where this knowledge is almost inconsequential and the guiding influence of the Holy Ghost comes to the fore.

Though his time in northern Italy, where Thomas’s commentary entered circulation and is preserved today, may have allowed Waleys to become familiar with his predecessor’s work, the English exegete nevertheless favors the older approach to the Psalter, identifying the prophetic content of the text as the human author’s primary intended meaning.43 In his preface, Waleys twice quotes from the prologue to the Lombard’s Magna glosatura (which he simply calls a glosa), praising David’s preeminence among prophets:

Dicitur in glosa: Alii prophetae per quasdam imagines rerum atque verborum integumenta, scilicet per somnia, visiones, facta, et dicta pr[o]phetauerunt. Dauid autem solius instinctu Spiritus sancti, sine exteriori adminiculo, suam edidit prophetiam. Ad cuius euidentiam sciendum quod prophetia est idem quod visio et propheta idem quod videns. Visio autem triplex est, scilicet corporalis, imaginatiua seu spiritualis, et tertia quae est omnium certissima et clarissima, scilicet intellectualis. Et ideo sunt totidem genera prophetandi. Omnes igitur alii prophetae vsi sunt quandoque primo genere vel secundo. … Dauid autem solus vsus est genere prophetandi tertio, propter quod et inter prophetas tantam habet excellentiam, vt secundum glosam cum dicitur Propheta sine additione nominis proprii intelligitur Dauid.

(sig. A1rb)

The gloss says: Other prophets prophesied through certain images of things and coverings of words, as through dreams, visions, deeds, and speeches, but David composed his prophecy with the inspiration of the Holy Ghost alone, without any external means. As proof of this, it should be known that prophecy is the same thing as seeing, and a prophet is the same as a seer. Now vision is threefold, i.e., bodily, imaginative or spiritual, and a third way which is the most certain and brilliant of all, i.e., intellectual. And therefore there are just as many types of prophesying. All other prophets, then, made use sometimes of the first, sometimes of the second type. … But David alone made use of the third type of prophesying, and he therefore has such excellence among the prophets that, as the gloss says, when we say “the Prophet” without adding a proper name, David is understood.

According to Waleys, the Psalmist did not “see” in the same way as other prophets, who were either confronted with marvelous events (facta), recorded divine or angelic speech (dicta), or had their imaginative faculties stimulated with divinely inspired dreams or waking visions (somnia seu visiones). Instead, David’s prophetic sight was wholly intellectual, allowing him simply to know all that the Holy Ghost wanted him to know.44 Waleys acknowledges that it may seem strange for David to have enjoyed such divine favor, since he was a murderer and adulterer (homicida et adulterus), but the sincerity of his penance “ad cernenda diuina misteria oculum mentis acuit et disponit” (sig. A1va: “sharpened and prepared his mind’s eye to perceive these divine mysteries”).45 And it is because of his apparently unique ability to perceive prophetic truths that “recipienda sunt verba prophetiae Psalmiste non superficialiter, vt solum aures vel linguam occupent, sed vt ad cordis interiora descendant et penetrent” (sig. A1va: “the words of the Psalmist’s prophecy should not be received superficially, so that they only occupy the ears and tongue, but so that they descend and penetrate even to the heart’s innermost depths”).

After describing David’s prophetic acuity in such effusive terms, Waleys goes on to gloss the first two nocturns of the Psalter in a way that emphasizes the craftedness of the text as prophecy and poetry.46 Introducing Ps. 7, for example, he elaborates upon what he found in the Glosatura, a note deriving ultimately from Augustine’s Enarrationes, and claims that David intends “agere gratias Deo pro reuelatione silentii, id est sacri secreti Dei super salutem generis humani” (sig. E4va: “to give thanks to God for the revelation of silence, i.e., of the holy secret of God concerning the salvation of humankind”).47 Likewise, at the beginning of his gloss on Ps. 12, Waleys writes, “Iste psalmus compositus est in persona humani generis suspirantis et desiderantis Christi aduentum” (sig. L2va: “This psalm is written in the persona of humankind sighing and longing for the advent of Christ”), then adding a second interpretive option: “Potest exponi vno modo in persona humani generis seu aliter in persona patrum antiquorum desiderantium Filii Dei incarnationem, qui se dicunt obliuioni traditos propter incarnationis dilationem” (L2vab: “It can be expounded in one way in the persona of humankind, or alternatively in the persona of the ancient fathers longing for the incarnation of the Son of God, those who say that they have been forgotten because of the delay of the incarnation”). Again, Waleys is building on the Lombard, who himself appears to be adapting Cassiodoran interpretations by way of Remigius of Auxerre.48 A similar gloss can likewise be found in Aquinas’s commentary – but Aquinas specifies that this is an allegorical interpretation of the text, while the psalm’s literal meaning concerns “historiam David, qui diu est persecutus a Saule” (“the story of David, who for a long time was persecuted by Saul”).49 By identifying the adoption of an imagined voice (persona) as integral to the text as the Psalmist composed it, then, and treating the prophetic content of that voice as part of David’s intended meaning, Waleys signals his preference for a pre-Thomistic set of interpretive priorities.

Yet it would be wrong to take the hermeneutic conservativism of his commentary as evidence that Waleys had serious objections to more recent trends in the interpretation of the Psalms. Instead, it seems more likely that he followed and elaborated on the Lombard because the Magna glosatura was convenient and uncontroversial, an authoritative work that allowed him to devote greater attention to other aspects of his commentary. Indeed, while his literal (prophetic, often Christological) glosses are relatively brief, Waleys also consistently includes lengthy allegorical or moral readings, with exempla drawn from a wide range of sources to illustrate his interpretive claims.50 It is in the compiling of these stories that Waleys must have expended most of his exegetical energies.

It is also in the compilation of his exempla that Waleys reveals his affinities with Smalley’s classicizing friars, the early fourteenth-century English theologians who pursued newly recovered sources on Roman antiquity and (in her somewhat exaggerated phrase) preferred “to write about ancient gods and heroes instead of the Bible.”51 Though at the beginning of his commentary Waleys tends to draw his exempla from standard scholastic sources – such as his gloss on Ps. 24.9, citing Aristotle to claim that the elephant is “domestior et obedientior omnibus animalibus agrestibus” (sig. Bb4vb: “more domestic and obedient than all the wild animals”) – as his work continues he increasingly turns to classical mythography and history. His ancient sources include the then-obscure Ab urbe condita, the first surviving commentary on which was composed by Trevet (on whom, more below) a decade earlier.52 Waleys most likely encountered Livy’s history in Bologna, perhaps only after he had begun his work on the Psalms, and the range of his quotations suggests his careful study of this text.53

Especially in the later portions of the commentary, as his classical exempla proliferate, Waleys can at times appear to be more interested in antiquity for its own sake than in using these sources to expound the Psalms. He begins his gloss of Ps. 23, for example, by indicating that the text may be divided into three portions, again assigning Christological prophecy to the literal sense: “Primo enim agit de terre formatione, secundo de lucis a tenebris separatione spirituali, tertio de Christi resurgentis glorificatione” (sig. Aa2va: “First he treats the formation of the earth, secondly the spiritual separation of the light from the darkness, and thirdly the glorification of the risen Christ”). Ps. 23.2 belongs to the first portion, and Waleys presents its literal sense as comparatively straightforward, requiring only a paraphrase and slight clarification of prepositions: “Terra est fundata super maria, id est iuxta maria, et orbis terrae praeparata est super flumina: accipitur enim ‘super’ hic pro ‘iuxta’” (sig. Aa3rb: “The earth is founded upon the seas, i.e., beside the seas, and the compass of the earth is prepared upon the rivers: here ‘upon’ is used instead of ‘beside’”). With its literal meaning easily established, Waleys goes on to offer an elaborate allegory, reading the terra founded super maria as the Church founded upon two women named Mary (super Marias), the one an innocent and the other a penitent. He then turns to his classical sources:

Narrat Titus Liuius primo volumine, lib. 2, et idem narrat Valerius, de Coriolano Romano, quod cum ipse propter persecutiones sibi factas exularet, mouit bellum contra vrbem, et in tantum eam humiliauit et terruit, quod cum armis viri vrbem defendere non possent, mulieres precibus lacrimisque defendebant, scilicet mater ipsius exulis et vxor, quae pacem vrbi lacrimis et precibus impetrabant.

(sig. Aa3vb)

Titus Livy (Volume 1, Book 2) and Valerius relate the story of Coriolanus Romanus, describing how, persecuted and driven into exile, he fomented war against the city and brought it so low and terrified it to such an extent that, since the men could not defend it with arms, the women defended it with prayers and tears – namely, the exile’s mother and his wife, who procured peace for the city with their tears and prayers.

The story of Coriolanus may seem to have little to do with the allegorization that Waleys has just offered, but he insists on its relevance.54 This Roman general, he argues, may be read as a type of Christ, who is exiled from his Church and consequently punishes it with tribulations, and it is only through the prayers of his mother and the tears of Mary Magdalene that mercy may be obtained.55 This extended rehearsal of classical material carries Waleys far from the literalistic parsing with which his treatment of the verse began, and it may indeed be the case that his discovery of this story motivated the creation of the allegorical gloss in its entirety. Yet the violent, bloody tale of Coriolanus certainly makes the otherwise-conventional allegory all the more vivid and memorable, and, here as elsewhere, Waleys seems to delight in the slippages between psalm text and exempla, in this case with the Magdalene’s copious salty tears potentially evoking the seas of Ps. 23.2.56

Other instances of classicism in his commentary have a direct bearing on Waleys’s literal glosses. In the third portion of the same psalm, describing the “glorification of the risen Christ,” Waleys again invokes Livy, but now without introducing an allegory or moralization. In a conventional move, he presents Ps. 23.9 as a description of the ascension, written “in persona angelorum Christum praecedentium” (sig. Aa6vb: “in the persona of the angels preceding Christ [i.e., into heaven]”), and he then turns to Livy to provide an earthly analogue explaining why this form of triumphant entry was appropriate.

Et merito debebatur Christo victori triumphalis gloria. Dicit enim Titus Liuius lib. 3 primi voluminis quod apud Romanos pro integra victoria triumphum petere voluerunt. Pro dimidia vero victoria, quae scilicet exercitum hostium fugauerunt, verecundum iudicabant hoc facere, ne scilicet impetrasse magis hominum quam meritorum ratio habita videretur. Constat autem quod Christus ante passionem crebram de hostibus obtinuit victoriam, sicut in expulsione demonum patuit, sed erat victoria quasi dimidia, et ideo ad hoc triumphum non petiit. Sed in passione non tantum dimidiam sed integram victoriam reportauit, et ideo non solum ex fauore gratiae, sed ex debito iustitiae sibi concessus est a Patre honor ille.

(sig. Aa6vb–Bb1ra)

And rightly was this triumphant glory owed to Christ the victor. For Titus Livy (Volume 1, Book 3) says that, among the Romans, a triumph was sought when there was a complete victory. When the victory was only partial (when, that is, they put the army of their enemies to flight) they considered it shameful to do this, so it would not seem that more attention was being paid to the men than to their merits. Now, it is clear that Christ obtained numerous victories over his enemies before his passion, as is apparent in the expulsion of demons, but these were something of an incomplete victory, and therefore he did not seek a triumph for them. But in his passion he won not a partial but a complete victory, and therefore the Father granted him that honor not only as a gesture of his favor but as something justly due.

Here Waleys is drawing on Livy’s account of the consuls Horatius and Valerius, who refused the honor of a triumph after defeating the Aequi and Volsci (III.lxx.15). Unlike the earlier example of Coriolanus, however, the historical details that Livy offers are now inconsequential, and Waleys instead derives from them a larger insight about the customs of antiquity, allowing him to explain the literal meaning of the biblical text. Again, the basic interpretation of this verse as describing Christ’s entry into heaven may be found in the Magna glosatura and, further back, Augustine, but the extensive elaboration of Waley’s twelfth-century source depends upon a decidedly fourteenth-century interest in the classical past.57

Though his favoring of a more traditional approach to the Psalter’s literal sense may reflect his relative indifference to recent developments in hermeneutic theory, this use of Livy should indicate that Waleys was not simply reiterating well-established interpretations. We have seen that he adds to the glosses he found in the Lombard, and at least some of his additions were motivated by his research into classical antiquity. His notion of literalistic Psalter exegesis may be conservative, then, and his commentary may be indebted to the larger tradition of exegesis on the Psalms, but Waleys nevertheless contributes to the ongoing development of that tradition, attempting to push it in new directions. Indeed, his interest in writing glosses derived from newly available classical texts may have encouraged him to favor the form of literalism he found in the Glosatura. It could be that by relying on these well-established and authoritative approaches and avoiding the potentially contentious innovations of Aquinas, Waleys considered himself freer to pursue his classicism and, in particular, to experiment with the possible relevance of this material to the study of the Bible.

Interpretive Innovation: Nicholas Trevet and Henry Cossey

For Nicholas Trevet, his older contemporary at Oxford, the kinds of interpretations that Waleys borrowed from the Lombard certainly had value, but they should not be confused with the text’s literal meaning or with the intentions of its human author.58 Commissioned c. 1317–20 by John of Bristol, the Prior Provincial of the English Dominicans, to compose a commentary on the literal sense of the Psalms, Trevet positions himself with respect to earlier exegetes in a way that signals his preference for Thomistic hermeneutics:

Quia uero omnes prisci temporis doctores circa allegoriarum misteria profunda perscrutanda totis studiis occupati, aut neglexerunt aut perfunctorie tetigerunt uelut abiecta testa, nuclei dulcedinem consectantes, postulauit a me uestra paternitas, ut quo clarius pateret spiritualis propheticusque intellectus qui littere uelud basi innititur, Psalterium exposicione litterali et hystorica illustrarem.59

Since all the doctors of former times devoted their efforts wholly to studying the profound mysteries of allegories and therefore either neglected or gave only perfunctory treatment to it [i.e., the literal meaning] like a lowly covering, seeking instead the sweetness of the kernel, you, father, have asked me to elucidate the Psalter with a literal and historical exposition, thereby making clearer the spiritual and prophetic understanding which rests upon the letter as though on a foundation.

Claiming, conventionally enough, that he will be content with the husk rather than the kernel, Trevet attempts to convey the modest scope of his work compared with the long line of writers who have plumbed the Psalter’s “profound mysteries.” As would later be the case with Lyre’s prologue (see above, 28), however, Trevet’s assertion of humility also serves to dismiss these commentaries as inadequately representing the text’s literal meaning.60 Compared with Waleys, it is immediately clear that Trevet is more interested in taking up questions of interpretive theory, but rather than trying to reconcile these different approaches, Trevet presents Thomistic hermeneutics as offering a literal supplement that consigns earlier exegetical undertakings to the realm of the spiritual senses.61

By collapsing the “spiritual and prophetic understanding” into a single category, defined against the “literal and historical exposition” of the text, Trevet’s interpretive approach clearly follows the precedent set by Aquinas, revealing his indebtedness to Thomistic theory if not to the text of Thomas’s Psalter commentary itself.62 He goes on to explain that this “literal or historical” meaning of the text is “quiduis ipsa uerborum de prima intentione auctoris fuisse pretendat, qualeque per os eius Spiritus sanctus misticis sensibus prestruxit fundamentum” (f. 1rb: “whatever it is in the words that [the Holy Ghost] puts forward according to the first intention of the author, and what through his mouth the Holy Ghost prepared as a foundation for the mystical senses”). Echoing his own account of the literal meaning as a foundation or pedestal (basis), Trevet agrees with Aquinas that the divine author is responsible both for the text’s prophetic content and for a later reader’s ability to discover that prophecy amid the more immediate historical referents intended by the human author. As in Thomas’s prologue, here too it is unclear whether the Psalmist (as Prophet) was aware of these other senses.

As noted above, this approach curtails the human author’s role in the creation of the Psalter’s meaning, and yet it is precisely this more restricted authorial ambit that Trevet seeks to elevate and explain. At least in part because he reads the Psalms as evoking specific events in the life of their author, the understanding of David as a writer cultivated over the course of Trevet’s commentary is, in some ways, more sophisticated than that of earlier exegetes. Trevet focuses persistently, and in considerable detail, on the Psalms as the written expressions of their human author. This valuing of the Davidic text helps to explain Trevet’s decision to gloss not the Gallican translation of the Psalms, the version used commonly in the liturgy, but rather the Hebraicum Psalter, which he believes to have been translated directly (immediate) from Hebrew into Latin, as well as his consultation (whether for himself or through intermediaries) of medieval Hebrew exegesis.63 His understanding of David’s authorial control may also account for Trevet’s unusual discussion of the Psalter’s structure, including his confusing comparison of what was commonly seen as a collection of lyrics, not to Horace,64 but to the narrative epic of Virgil:

In Psalterio non ponuntur Psalmi secundum ordinem continuum hystorie, sed carptim interponendo que postea contingerunt, nunc econtra secundum quod deuocio psallentis consurgebat in Dei laudem. Et iste est proprius modus eorum qui scribunt carmina, quod non secundum ordinem hystorie sed carptim scribant. Sic Vergilius enim a medio hystorie incipiens in libro tercio redit ad principium. (f. 2rb)

In the Psalter the Psalms are not arranged in a continuous historical order but rather disconnectedly, interposing things that happen later, and now, on the contrary, according to what the devotion of the singer stirs up in praise of God. And this is the proper mode of those who write poems [or songs: carmina], that they do not write according to the order of history but rather disconnectedly. For thus Virgil, having begun in the middle of his story, in Book Three returns to the beginning.

Unlike earlier commentators, such as the Lombard, who maintained that the authorial ordering of the Psalms as a collection had been lost during the exile in Babylon and that the current state of the text reflects its reconstruction by the prophet Ezra, Trevet here implies that this apparent disorder is the result of its author’s poetic design.65 In part, the need to explain the Psalter’s ahistorical arrangement may be motivated by Trevet’s unusual insistence on reading the text historialiter, but he moves away from history by describing the affective response – the feelings of devotion that the sequence of the Psalms can help “stir up” – apparently anticipated by the human author. The Psalmist may not have intended all of the Christological meanings that other commentators attributed to him, but he is still a poet who shaped his whole composition with care.

Throughout his work, then, Trevet presents the literal sense of the Psalter as describing events in the life of its author. Yet his insistence on distinguishing between the “historical” and “prophetic” meanings of the text does not prevent Trevet from claiming that at least some psalms contain prophecy in their literal sense. In these cases, his focus on David as a historical figure persists, and he tends to interpret such prophecy as predicting other events in the Psalmist’s life. These prophecies can thus be part of the “first intention of the human author” while also continuing to provide the “foundation prepared for the mystical senses.” This treatment of prophecy as part of a heightened interest in the life of David can be seen, for example, in Trevet’s gloss of Ps. 6. This is the first of the Penitential Psalms, and its place in this sequence led even Aquinas to read it apart from the narrative of David’s life, claiming that “videtur hic psalmus exprimere affectus hominis qui pro peccatis castigatus et in manibus inimicorum datus, poenitentia peracta liberationem obtinuit” (“this psalm seems to express the feelings of a person who, punished for his sins and given over into the hands of his enemies, has won freedom with acts of penance”).66 Trevet rejects this sort of generalizing move, which would make the devotional adoption of the psalm’s persona part of its author’s designs, and instead favors historical specificity: “Orat Dauid petens a Domino liberationem a persecutione inimicorum suorum” (f. 13rb: “David prays, asking God for freedom from the persecution of his enemies”). The particular identity of those enemies soon becomes clear:

Increpat ergo inimicos et hostes suos dicens, Recedite a me, id est desiste a me persequendo, omnes qui operamini iniquitatem, scilicet consenciendo iniquis operibus Absolon. Hec increpacio prophetica est, et ideo exponend[a] est. Recedite, id est recedetis, quod factum est post mortem Absolon restituto Dauid in regnum. Deinde cum dicit, Quia exaudiuit, huius increpacionis prophetice causam subiungit, dicens quod oracio pro liberacione sua fuit exaudita a Domino. Et hoc primo insinuat dicens, Quoniam exaudiuit, quasi dicat: Ideo dico quod receditis, quoniam exaudiuit Dominus uocem fletus mei, id est mei flentis. Secundo, versus ix, cum dicit audiuit ex uehementi gaudio hoc idem iterum ac tercio replicat. Cum dicit, Audiuit Dominus deprecationem, ecce iterum, Dominus orationem meam suscepit, ecce tercio idem replicat. Et est poliptodon.

(f. 14ra)

He therefore rebukes his enemies and the hostile peoples, saying, Depart from me, i.e., stop pursuing me, all you workers of iniquity, i.e., joining in the unjust works of Absalom. This rebuke is prophetic and therefore must be interpreted. Depart, i.e., you will depart, which indeed happened after the death of Absalom, when David was restored to power. Then when he says, For he has heard, he prophetically adds the cause of this rebuke, saying that the prayer for his freedom has been heard by the Lord. And he first suggests this, saying, For he has heard, as though he said: For this reason I say that you will depart, for the Lord has heard the voice of my cry, i.e., of my crying. Secondly, when he says, He has heard, out of his wholehearted joy he repeats it a second and third time. When he says, The Lord has heard my prayer, this is the second time, and he repeats it a third time: The Lord has received my prayer. And this is called polyptoton.

Though this identification of a literary device reveals an understanding of the text’s poetic quality shared by the commentary tradition on this book more generally, his interpretation of the psalm in terms of Davidic history sets Trevet apart from other exegetes. Waleys insists, for example, that David is speaking here “in persona paenitentis, pro suis et aliorum delictis deprecantis” (sig. D6v: “in the persona of a penitent, praying for his faults and those of others”). In contrast, Trevet believes that the Psalmist was describing recent events, and, in keeping with this historical focus, the scope of his prophecies is limited, in this case predicting Absalom’s death and the restoration of his kingdom. Neither offering Christological prophecy nor anticipating the adoption of his lyric persona by future readers, Trevet’s Psalmist writes songs of his own experience.

Perhaps in part because his attempt to extend Thomas’s theoretical innovations overlapped with Lyre’s more comprehensive project, produced a few years later, or simply because he chose to interpret a translation of the Psalter not used in liturgical devotion, Trevet’s commentary appears not to have enjoyed a wide readership.67 It did, however, attract the attention of one of Trevet’s younger contemporaries, Henry Cossey, master of the Franciscan school at Cambridge, c. 1325–26.68 In his own commentary, likely produced during a stint at Oxford following his regency, Cossey extends many of the interpretive priorities that he found in Trevet’s gloss, as well as in the literal postils of Nicholas of Lyre, both of whom he cites by name, and he works to develop their interest in the Hebrew text of the Psalms and in the interpretations offered by medieval Jewish writers.69 Indeed, a note on Hebrew prepositions occurring at the end of Cossey’s work suggests that he had acquired at least a rudimentary understanding of the language, a conclusion reinforced by his frequent habit of presenting a transliteration of the Hebrew text in the body of his commentary.70 Even as he embraces some of their methods, however, Cossey is critical of the way Trevet and Lyre dismiss their exegetical forebears and distinguish between the prophetic content of the Psalms and their human author’s intentions. In Cossey’s view, earlier commentators were often right to find Christological prophecy as the text’s literal meaning, and his task was therefore to assess how these earlier understandings might be refined, though not rejected, in light of Trevet’s and Lyre’s Thomistic innovations.

Of course, as we have seen, Trevet was in complete agreement that the Psalms could be read as prophecy of Christ, but, unlike Trevet, Cossey insists that this prophecy is part of their human author’s intended meaning. As had pre-Thomistic commentators, Cossey imagines the moment of prophetic insight to be the same as the moment of poetic inspiration, describing how “totum nempe quod Psalmista Deo inspirante concepit vt prophetando prediceret, psallere voluit et cum ympnis et canticis inspiratoris laudi tribuere” (f. 1r: “all that, with God’s inspiration, the Psalmist understood himself able to predict in his prophecy, all of this he wished to sing in psalms and to offer in praise of his inspirer with hymns and songs”). In what could be an oblique response to the application of Thomistic theories to non-narrative books, Cossey goes on to observe, “Modus enim tradendi istam propheciam non est simplici narracione sed psalmodia et decantacione, vt duriora corda que verbis non compunguntur modulacionis suauitate moueantur” (“The mode of conveying this prophecy is not with simple narrative, but with psalmody and song, so that harder hearts, which were not pricked by words, would be moved by the sweetness of the melody”). Indeed, Cossey is less surprised by the notion that David could have intended to write prophecies about Christ than he is that the rustic monarch and military leader was able to compose such sophisticated poetry:

Sed mirum est quomodo ipse Dauid, de post fetantes assumptus et postea per totam vitam suam in actibus bellicis occupatus, sciuerit versificare. Sed in lingua materna eciam laici sciunt versificare. Verumptamen ipse Dauid literatus fuit: dicunt enim Hebrei, et recitat Ysidorus, libro 6 Ethimologiarum, quod Dauid scripsit vltimam partem libri Samuelis vsque ad calcem.

(f. 3r)

But it is astonishing to think how David, taken from the sheepfold [cf. Ps. 77.70] and, later, occupied with warfare throughout his life, knew how to write poetry. But even the laity are able to write poetry in their mother tongue. Yet David was literate, for the Hebrews say, and Isidore repeats (Etymologies, VI.ii.10), that David wrote the last part of the book of Samuel, up to its conclusion.

It is precisely the actions of the embattled David that Trevet had taken to be the subject matter of much of the Psalter, but Cossey maintains that the Psalmist was able to compose his prophetic poetry despite the amount of time he spent on the battlefield. In Cossey’s commentary, as in the earlier exegetical tradition on this book more generally, the Psalms present their human author’s attempt to express his divinely given knowledge and to use literary language and form to move his readers with his prophetic message.

Earlier commentators had praised the Psalmist for his uniquely extensive knowledge of the incarnation, an appraisal we have seen repeated by Thomas Waleys. Though Aquinas had similarly recognized the “glorious clarity” of David’s foresight, the historical focus of Thomistic exegetes like Lyre and Trevet cast doubt, if only implicitly, on the Psalmist’s prophetic preeminence. Cossey takes up this question as part of his discussion of the genus prophetiae to which the Psalter belongs, and, though he finally agrees with the earlier tradition, his engagement with the Thomists results in a tortuous and caveat-ridden line of reasoning:

Valde difficile est homini cognoscere quis prophecie gradus perfeccior sit, et valde difficilius quis prophetarum habuerit illum gradum post Christum. Et dicit Lira quod Dauid non fuit perfeccior propheta quam Apostoli, quia ipsi plenius acceperunt graciam Spiritus sancti. … Quamuis Apostoli fuerunt viri perfecciores quia et viderunt corporaliter Messiam et alia de quibus Dauid prophetauerat, non propter hoc sequitur quod fuerunt perfecciores prophete, nec quod habuerunt perfecciorem gradum prophecie: ymmo raro leguntur prophetasse, nisi Iohannes in Apocalipsi. Dico ergo quod propheta excellit prophetam vel propter maiorem certitudinem et euidentiam rerum sibi reuelatarum, vel propter maiorem dignitatem rerum ipsarum, vel maiorem multitudinem reuelatorum, vel propter concursum omnium istorum, et iste est perfectissimus gradus qui excellit in omnibus istis. Sed quando vnus propheta excellit in vno et alius in alio, quis est perfeccissimus gradus difficile est dicere (nisi Deus reuelet), et quia omnes prophete in celo sunt vnanimes de eorum excellenciis, non disputemus in terris. Tamen Dauid potest dici prophetarum eximius qui suo tempore prophetabant secum, vel etiam quia rex erat, vel quia suam propheciam metrice et ympnidice concinebat, vel aliis de causis quas Deus nouit.

(f. 9r)

It is very hard for people to know which degree of prophecy is more perfect, and, especially after Christ’s incarnation, it is harder still to know which of the prophets attained to that degree. Lyre says that David was not a more perfect prophet than the Apostles, since they received the grace of the Holy Ghost more fully. … Yet, though the Apostles were more perfect men (since they saw the Messiah in the flesh, as well as other things about which David prophesied), it does not follow from this that they were more perfect prophets, nor that they had a more perfect degree of prophecy – no, rather, with the exception of John in the Apocalypse, they are rarely said to have prophesied. I say, therefore, that one prophet excels another either on account of the greater certainty and evidence of the things revealed to him, or on account of the greater dignity of those things, or the greater number of his prophecies, or on account of the coincidence of all of these things, and this is the most perfect degree, which excels all the others. But when one prophet excels in one regard and another in another, it is difficult to say which is the most perfect degree (unless God reveals it!), and since all the prophets are in agreement about their excellence in heaven, let us not argue about these things on earth. Nevertheless, David can be said to be the most outstanding of the prophets who prophesied in his lifetime, either because he was the king, or because he sang his prophecy metrically and hymnically, or because of some other causes known to God.

As happens elsewhere in his prologue, here Cossey comes closer to offering a deconstructive reading of earlier commentaries than any positive interpretive claim of his own. At least part of his difficulty can be explained by the different ways of classifying prophecy that had developed in the commentary traditions specific to different biblical books. While exegetes of the Psalter had tended to follow the Cassiodoran distinction of prophecy by words, events, images, and “hidden inspiration,” the prologues to Apocalypse commentaries, for example, generally framed their discussion in terms of the three modes of sight adapted from Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, though there was considerable disagreement regarding whether John saw in the second (spiritual) or third (intellectual) modes.71 Increasingly through the thirteenth century, however, commentators attempted to find ways to reconcile these disparate accounts of prophecy. We have seen that Waleys, for example, perhaps following Aquinas, included both the Cassiodoran and Augustinian schemes as part of his praise of the Psalmist. Even as he refutes the specific comparison (found in Lyre) of David to the Apostles, Cossey seems to be expressing his general anxiety concerning the impossibility of the sort of reconciliation and comparison Lyre had attempted.72 Since “one excels in one regard and another in another,” it would be foolish for an exegete to insist on the exceptional status of any single prophet, unless that exegete were himself to receive some prophetic insight on the matter. After this equivocation, Cossey is finally able to affirm the praise of David found in the Glosatura, maintaining that the Psalmist was the most outstanding of prophets (prophetarum eximius), but he can only offer this encomium with a string of qualifiers. David was the greatest prophet “in his own day,” and even in this more restricted sense, the Psalmist’s greatness apparently has less to do with his prophetic knowledge and more with political power or literary merit.73 Cossey is trying to salvage a pre-Thomistic understanding of the Psalter, but the complications introduced by more recent commentators compel him to present that understanding in an especially attenuated form.

Though his qualified praise of the Psalmist indicates the extent to which new developments in general hermeneutic theory could complicate book-specific traditions, at other points in his commentary Cossey is able to dismiss Thomistic approaches with confidence and apparent ease. At the opening of his gloss on Ps. 29, for example, he cites and quickly sets aside Trevet’s non-Christological reading of the text:

De materia psalmi dicit Triuet quod est regraciatorius pro reditu de captiuitate Babilonica, et cantabatur in templi dedicacione, et sic tractat totum psalmum, et quod infra dicitur, Domine eduxisti ab inferno, exponit de ergastulo Babiloniorum. Sed si iste psalmus sit propheticus, sicut oportet secundum istam exposicionem, et prophecia Dauid fuit de Christo maxime, sicut testatur Regum [23], multo melius videtur de Christo exponere ad literam.

(f. 41v)

Concerning the subject matter of this psalm, Trevet says that it is an offering of thanks for the return from the Babylonian captivity, and it was sung at the dedication of the temple. And he interprets the entire psalm in this manner, and what is said below, Lord, you have brought [my soul] from hell [Ps. 29.4], he expounds as concerning the prison of the Babylonians. But if this psalm is prophetic, as it ought to be according to this exposition, and David’s prophecy is especially about Christ, as II Reg. 23 makes clear, it would then seem much better to expound it as being literally about Christ.

According to Cossey, Trevet had conceded that the human author’s intentions in Ps. 29 were, in a limited way, prophetic, insofar as David foresaw the reconstruction of the temple that would take place after the captivity in Babylon, and he composed this psalm to be sung at its dedication.74 Identifying an apparent weakness in Trevet’s (and Thomas’s) theory of prophetic authorship, Cossey insists that, if Trevet is willing to identify some prophecy as the literal sense of the psalm, then he should admit that the Psalmist could also have intended to express his prophetic foreknowledge of Christ. To support this claim, he refers to II Reg. 23.1–2, the last words of David, in which the king claims to speak with divine inspiration, and which Cossey had quoted in his prologue, arguing that “quandoque psalmus est principaliter prophecialis, et hoc de Christo sicut sunt multi” (f. 1v: “sometimes a psalm is principally prophetic, and, indeed, in many cases about Christ”). The reference in Ps. 29.4 to being raised from hell does not need to be treated as a metaphor for the Babylonian captivity, then, but can instead be read, literally and prophetically, in the persona of Christ. This reasoning allows Cossey to offer an interpretation of the psalm which is much closer to what he found in the Glosatura, where it is said to describe Christ’s passion and resurrection.75

Affirming that Christological prophecy is essential to the literal meaning of the Psalms, Cossey is critical of the interpretive theories underpinning the work of Thomists like Trevet and Lyre. In other cases, however, it is his facility with Hebrew that allows Cossey to find fault with these exegetes, who, he says, fail to pursue their newer interpretive priorities with sufficient rigor. In other words, though he disputes their theory of authorship, Cossey wholly supports some of their other interpretive innovations, especially their recourse ad codices Hebraeorum to determine the meaning of the text as composed by its human author. At the beginning of his gloss on Ps. 76, for instance, Cossey notes, “Dicit Triuet quod istud, Asaph Psalmus, in veris exemplaribus non habetur: sed istud est mirabile, cum in vtroque psalterio, quorum vnum erat diligentius scriptum et quo correctum, planissime scribatur” (ff. 122v–123r: “Trevet says that this, A Psalm of Asaph, is not to be found in the best copies: but this is very strange, for in both of my psalters (one of which was quite diligently copied and therefore correct) it [i.e., the title] is written clear as day”). The two psalters mentioned here are invoked throughout Cossey’s commentary, and these repeated references make it clear that they are copies of the Hebrew text. Cossey seems to have acquired one of them from a Jewish convert, while he likely encountered the other in the library of the Oxford Greyfriars, part of the Grosseteste bequest.76 Here we learn that Cossey thinks one of these manuscripts (though which one is unclear) to have been written with considerable care, and he therefore considered it all the more valuable as a witness to the Hebrew.77 Since both of his Hebrew manuscripts contain the reference to Asaph in the title of Ps. 76, Cossey finds it perplexing (mirabile) that Trevet would claim that the phrase lacks the support of “true exemplars,” suggesting either that Trevet’s sources were faulty or that his skills as a textual critic were, in this case, deficient. Rather than rejecting Trevet’s interpretive priorities, Cossey is pursuing them with greater acuity and accuracy.

Cossey’s scholarly work with the Psalter, along with his critique of Trevet, extended beyond the initial drafting of his commentary. In the only surviving copy of the work, Cambridge, Christ’s College MS 11, the scribe has included a series of marginal notes tied to specific points in the text, some consisting of only a single sentence and others filling the margins of both pages in a single opening (Fig. 3). The length of some examples makes it unlikely that these notes represent an attempt to correct errors in the copying of the text. Instead, they seem to have been positioned as the scribe found them in his exemplar, reproducing, in other words, notes added to supplement the main text in Cossey’s working copy.78 This impression is reinforced by their content: the shorter notes often add contrary opinions attributed to single authorities, while the longer ones reflect more substantial work with numerous sources. Cossey appears to have extended his discussion of the transliterated Hebrew title of Ps. 6, for example, with material borrowed from Trevet, visible in the middle of the left margin in Figure 3.

Dicit Triuet quod seminith nomen est cantici quod spectabat ad Mathathiam et socios eius, sicut habetur Paral. 15 vbi dicitur: Porro Mathathias et Eliphalu etc. in citharis suis pro octaua canebant. Vnde omnes psalmi qui habent in titulis pro octaua spectabant ad Mathathiam et socios eius. Sed melius videtur vt dicunt Hebrei.

(f. 21v)

Trevet says that shemineth is the name of a song pertaining to Mathathias and his companions, as in I Chron. 15.21: And Mathathias and Eliphalu, etc., sang for the octave on their harps. And therefore all the psalms which have for the octave in their titles pertained to Mathathias and his companion. But it seems better, as the Hebrews say.

The seemingly fragmentary ending of this gloss allows the added passage to flow seamlessly into the preexisting text in the body of the commentary, which, immediately after the signe de renvoi, reads, “Dicunt Hebrei quod seninith, hoc est octaua, est nomen musici instrumenti eo quod octo cordas habeat sic nominati” (“The Hebrews say that shemineth, i.e., octave, is the name of a musical instrument, so called because it has eight strings”). Cossey then returns to Trevet’s suggestion in a longer addition, copied in the lower margin spanning ff. 21v–22r, and he offers further evidence from the Hebrew text of the psalm and of I Chron. 15, as well as from Jerome, to support the conclusion that “adherendum est illis Hebreis qui dicunt quod seminith est nomen instrumentorum illorum que octo cordis tangebantur” (“we should keep to the opinion of the Hebrews who say that shemineth is the name of instruments that are played with eight strings”).79 Again, the end of the marginal note, “Et dicit Lira, etc.,” repeats the beginning of the next sentence in the main text (“… et dicit Lira quod Dauid in hoc psalmo …”), allowing Cossey’s exposition to continue. Additions like this one may seem oddly unnecessary, offering a long detour that simply allows Cossey to affirm his original position and refute an alternative from a source he had to hand when first writing the commentary, and which, at the time, he decided not to include. Indeed, this is not the only series of marginal additions in which Cossey names sources cited throughout his gloss, indicating that the inclusion of these notes was not always motivated by the discovery of new material.80 These additions, then, may point to the troublesome diversity of Cossey’s sources, as well as their persistent disagreements, which he struggled to reconcile throughout his exegetical undertaking. They also reveal the persistence of his efforts, his willingness to entertain the possibility that Trevet may have been right and to carry out further research to ensure that his own Hebrew sources had not led him astray.

Figure 3 Cambridge, Christ’s College MS 11, f. 21v.

Though Cossey clearly found some newer interpretive trends to be quite compelling, he also seems to have recognized the challenges that these approaches posed for the long tradition of commentaries on the Psalms. Unlike Waleys, he does not favor earlier approaches because they are convenient and their authority is established. He seems, instead, to have been committed to testing the strengths and limits of the theories underlying the commentaries on which he and Waleys drew. This commitment also sets him apart from Trevet, since he appears interested in the hermeneutic developments represented in Trevet’s commentary chiefly insofar as they could help him refine and revise the interpretations that he found in works like the Magna glosatura. Trevet was ready to reclassify this earlier tradition, claiming that it focused wholly on the Psalter’s spiritual senses, and to present his work (however humbly) as the first thoroughly literal reading of the text. Cossey, in contrast, insisted on innovating from within the tradition. Elaborating upon the Lombard’s description of the Psalter as the summation of all theology (quoted above, 18), Cossey praises the biblical book’s lofty subject matter, which, he says, “deissima est et tocius theologie finem continuere videtur, qui in diuinis laudibus et contemplacione diuinorum existit” (f. 12rv: “is godly and seems to contain the end of all theology, consisting of divine praise and the contemplation of divine things”). The theological profundity of this book is, Cossey insists, part of its human author’s design, and he embraces hermeneutics specific to the Psalter as well as general scholastic interpretive theories in his ongoing attempt to draw out those meanings in all of their richness.

Interpreting Solomon’s observation in Eccles. 12.12, “Of the making of many books there is no end,” Bonaventure laments, “Curiosi nunquam tot habent, quin volint audire plures, quia nunquam volunt audire vetera sed semper nova” (“Curious people never have enough, but they want to hear more, and they never want to hear old things but always new ones”). Yet, though he criticizes idle curiosity as a great affliction (afflictio magna), he is not willing to condemn all bibliographic proliferation, to which his own writings obviously contribute. By maintaining that “scientia semper quodam modo renovatur” (“knowledge must always in some way be renewed”), Bonaventure points to the way in which, in almost all cases, the work of exegetes builds on and extends the interpretive efforts of earlier writers.81 Of the making and revising of commentaries, no end is in sight.

The idea of progress suggested by Bonaventure is developed in much greater detail in the Summa Quaestionum Ordinarium (VIII.6) of another Parisian master, Henry of Ghent (d. 1293). Against the claims of the Joachimites, Henry insists that all truth is contained in the Old and New Testaments, and all that remains is for the proper understanding of the canonical Scriptures to be made known.82 This understanding, for Henry, takes three forms: disseminating the text throughout the world, responding to it with acts of penance and worship, and, finally, glossing it. He considers the first two of these acts already accomplished, but the last will continue until the end of time:

Sic ergo vult Dominus vt quilibet de suo offerat, vt sic totum aedificium continue crescens tandem perfectum fiat, et hoc tam cognitione doctrine quam opere vite. … Vnde cum non solum predicatum fuerit euangelium per orbem vniuersum Christi nomen diuulgando, quod impletum fuit tempore Apostolorum, sed etiam cum effectu poenitentiam recipiendo, vt in omni gente ecclesie aedificentur et ab aliquibus in illis colatur Christus, quod nondum erat factum tempore Augustini, vt dicit in epistola ad Esichium, quod forte impletum fuit postmodum conuersis temporibus beati Gregorii Pape insulis oceani – cumque non solum hoc factum fuerit, sed etiam expositum et opere impletum quod restat exponendum et implendum, tunc erit consummatio et finis mundi. Citra autem continue augmentatur sacre Scripture intellectus et expositio.

(sig. i5v–6r)

The Lord therefore wishes that everyone contributes his own offering, so that the whole edifice, continuously growing, may finally be perfected in the knowledge of doctrine and in the conduct of life. … Thus, not only when the gospel has been preached throughout the whole world, spreading abroad the name of Christ, which was fulfilled in the time of the Apostles, but also when this preaching has led to penance, so that churches are built in every nation and Christ is worshiped in them, which had not yet happened in the time of Augustine, as he says in his letter to Esichius, but which was perhaps fulfilled later, when the islands of the ocean had been converted in the time of Pope Gregory – when not only all this is done, but also when what remains to be expounded and fulfilled has been expounded and fulfilled, then the consummation and end of the world will come. Until then, the understanding and exposition of Holy Scripture will be increased continuously.

“The end of time,” as Dahan explains, “will make the work of exegesis unnecessary. But that has not yet come, and so writers must continue to construct the hermeneutic edifice, generation by generation and brick by brick.”83 In some cases, more commentaries will be needed because earlier exegetes left lacunae, failing to gloss every word or phrase in the text, but the formulation of new hermeneutic theories will also allow for new interpretive insights. As Henry notes elsewhere in his Summa (IX.2), Scripture was written by human authors who, he claims, “regulas artis huius quam conscripserunt perfectissime intellexerunt” (sig. i7v: “perfectly understood the rules governing the art that they composed”), and new ways of analyzing these compositions will yield new understandings of their meaning.84

Apparently sharing this sense of exegetical progress, Trevet and Cossey seem to have approached their task as commentators with the aim of building on the work of their predecessors and offering new understandings of the Psalms in light of recent hermeneutic innovations. Though they disagree about whether the tradition of Psalter commentaries was focused on the text’s literal or spiritual meaning, both necessarily position their interpretations in relation to the work of earlier exegetes, contributing however many more bricks to the “hermeneutic edifice” of scholastic interpretation. In this edifice there were many rooms. Many of the points on which Trevet and Cossey disagree – in particular the place of Christological meaning in the Psalms and the ways in which an exegete is to draw out that meaning – reflect interpretive priorities that were specific to the Psalter and that had developed in one Psalter commentary after another over the course of centuries. Though they could certainly have some bearing on the interpretation of other books, questions of how poetic voice and literary devices could be used to enrich (or perhaps disguise) prophetic foreknowledge had especial urgency in the case of this particular text, and it is to these questions that their major antecedents, especially the Magna glosatura, drew Trevet’s and Cossey’s attention. Commentators tended to define their interpretive priorities in terms of traditions specific to individual biblical books or, in some cases, groups of books, and it was largely in terms of these book-specific traditions that hermeneutic progress was made.

At the same time, it was their differing responses to recent general interpretive theories, especially those propounded by Aquinas, that led Cossey to disagree with much of what he found in Trevet’s commentary. Presented as applying to the Bible as a whole, Thomas’s theories of the scriptural senses were formulated, it would seem, without much concern for the specific interpretive demands of non-narrative books like the Psalter, and, though his own commentary offered one model of how these competing priorities could be reconciled, other exegetes could very well disagree with his solution and propose one of their own, as the case of Cossey in particular makes clear. Cossey’s work also indicates that other methodological priorities often associated with Thomistic commentators, especially the consultation of Hebrew manuscripts in the case of Old Testament books, could be taken up without causing as many problems. The Thomistic toolkit could be drawn on selectively, and, indeed, some of these methods could be used to reinforce the authority of long-standing (book-specific) interpretations. The negotiation of different interpretive theories could result in varying degrees of methodological piecemealism and further hermeneutic variegation.

Late medieval biblical commentaries were more intricately and diversely experimental than the familiar narrative of the rise of the literal sense would suggest, complicated by the continued importance of book-specific traditions of exegesis. This complexity makes it less useful (for the modern critic) to discuss medieval biblical hermeneutics as a single unified field, since the theories underpinning different commentaries varied greatly depending on the biblical book in question, and it is only by gaining a familiarity with the shape of a book-specific tradition as it developed over the course of centuries that, in many cases, we will be able to discern how later medieval commentators responded to the challenges posed by general scholastic hermeneutic theories. Then again, precisely this sensitivity to the shape of the long tradition of Psalter commentaries can be seen, to varying degrees, in the work of Cossey, Trevet, and even Waleys. Cossey in particular has shown himself to be an astute reader both of earlier approaches to the Psalms and of newer interpretive theories.

Recognizing the continued influence of these early scholastic (and pre-scholastic) interpretive traditions is especially important in the case of the Psalter, since, though they are focused on recovering the intentiones of the book’s author, the priorities and procedures found in works like the Glosatura hold open the possibility of bridging academic and devotional modes of reading. While we have seen that, in the prayer concluding his prologue, Waleys distinguishes between “those who sing David’s words in churches” and “those who read them in the schools,” his (and, indeed, Cossey’s) approach to the Psalter’s literal sense points to some continuities between the two activities. That is, by following the Lombard and claiming that the Psalmist’s prophecies include texts written in, for example, “the persona of a penitent, praying for his faults and those of others,” Waleys appears to be suggesting that the Prophet intended to write at least some psalms in a way that anticipated their re-voicing by later (Christian) readers.85 In these cases, the meaning of the text as it is “sung in churches” is, at least in theory, precisely what the schoolmen are studying, and we will see that this connection between the psalms’ literal sense, as understood in this book-specific interpretive tradition, and their devotional performance will be crucial to the development of scholastic Psalter exegesis, in Latin and English alike.

This overlap in the devotional and scholastic reading of the Psalter is largely effaced in the approaches favored by Aquinas, Trevet, and Lyre, for whom the book’s literal sense describes or reflects on the historical narrative of its author’s life, and what Trevet calls the “profound mysteries” of these devotional re-voicings are consigned to the spiritual senses. We have seen that Lyre’s Psalter postil reached England quickly enough to be used as a source of Christian Hebraism in Cossey’s commentary, and, though Cossey was critical of Lyre’s (and Trevet’s) repositioning of earlier scholastic Psalter exegesis, this Thomistic approach would become a new standard, as Lyre’s postils gained the status, like the Glossa, of a basic exegetical reference work. “By the mid-fourteenth century,” as Deeana Klepper notes, Lyre “had come to serve as the Christian Bible commentator of first resort, based in large part on his perceived mastery of the Hebrew Bible.”86 Lyre’s success no doubt contributed to the limited circulation of the three contemporary Psalter commentaries discussed here. Yet the pre-Thomistic interpretive tradition on which Cossey and Waleys drew was still available to new exegetes, and, as we will see, the next major attempts at Anglo-Latin biblical exegesis, undertaken at Oxford during the career of John Wyclif (d. 1384), show their continued appeal, even as they also illustrate the newly won authority of Lyre’s undertaking. The next clutch of English exegetes would have to negotiate the same competing claims of interpretive history and scholastic theory.

Figure 0

Figure 3 Cambridge, Christ’s College MS 11, f. 21v.

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