Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Vercelli Book, the Misterious Collection of Homilies and Poems, Liber ignotae linguae.

One of the priceless treasures of the Museo del Tesoro del Duomo (Cathedral Treasury Museum) of Vercelli, which we mentioned in our last post, is its collection of ancient manuscripts and books, some from before the age of the Guttenberg printing press. Beside the Gospel Codex A, from the IIIrd  Century AD,  the most remarkable and mysterious of the entire collection is undoubtedly what has become to be known as the Vercelli Book. Silvia Facin is in charge
of ancient manuscripts, and a
leading authority on the Vercelli

The Vercelli Book is a unique Anthology of 23 Homilies and 6 poems written in Old English, probably copied in a Scriptorum in England, either in the late Xth  Century, or during the first half of the XIth Century AD. This means that the possible porter of this work to the Cathedral of Vercelli could have been Sigeric the Serious (992 AD) himself. The Bishop Leone of Vercelli (996 AD), instated only a few years after Sigeric passed through,was a renowned figure throughout Europe, both in spheres of politics as well as culture, and helped build his cathedral's collections. 

Another possible donor of this anthology could have been Ulf, Bishop of Dorchester, who during the Council of Vercelli, in 1050 A.D., was allegedly either involved in some inappropriate behavior, or possibly having uttered an opinion which was not well received by his pears. Ulf might have used a treasured item such as this book to free himself from a compromising situation. Whether there is any truth to this episode, we will probably never know, but within 2 years, Ulf had been discharged from his duties as Bishop.

Another possible explanation of how the Book arrived to Vercelli is the hospital, l'Ospedale di Santa Brigida in Vercelli, also called l'Ospedale degli Scoti (the Hospital of the Scots), a clinic frequented by pilgrims. It is feasible that a pilgrim from England, grateful for services rendered by the clinic, left the treasure
Pay close attention to the dates: “late 10th Century”, "992 AD", "996 AD" and “1050 A.D.” This puts us right before a very important date in English history, that every schoolboy must learn by heart, without the faintest idea of its meaning: “1066”: the Battle of Hastings, the Norman Invasion, and William the Conquerer. The consequences of the conquest of the Normans was not only political. As William did not speak Old English, the language of the court became Norman, French as spoken in  Northwest France at that time, and Middle English became more similar to French than to the Anglo-Saxon Old English. So the Vercelli Book, a treasure in the late 10th Century, quickly became an anachronism, a curiosity that quickly lost its charm as an object of study, as monks were no longer familiar with the language, stating “eo legere non valeo” (“of this read we cant”) by the close of the XIth Century.

The Vercelli Book found its way into the back shelves, to some comfortable spot of oblivion in the Vercelli Bishop’s library, and was left to hibernate for 6 centuries in  obscurity of dust, until the year 1602, when it appeared in an inventory under the guidance of Giovanni Franceso Leone, who classified it as "Liber Gothicus, sive Longobardus" ("Gothic or perhaps Lombard Book"). Almost 150 years later, it was brought to the attention of the world-famous paleographer, Giuseppe Bianchini, who after examining the manuscript, concluded: "Liber linguae ignotae" (Book of an unknown language). It wasn't until 1822, when a Friedrich Blume, a German lawyer doing research in Medieval documents, when he went through the Vercelli Book, recognized the language to be his native Anglo Saxon language.

The Vercelli Book is one of the four extant manuscripts of Anglo Saxon Literature, together with the Cotton Vercelli, (which contains Beowulf and we can see it at the British Library), the Codex Exoniensis, (or Exeter Codex, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is located at the Exeter Cathedral Library) and the Junius XI Codex (known also as the Caedmon Manuscript, likewise a collection of poems, presently located at the Bodleian Library, at Oxford). As you can see, the only one of these four great manuscripts outside of England is the Vercelli Book.

If we compare the Vercelli Book with
other manuscripts produced in
monasteries during the following
centuries, it is both elegant but quite
Spartan in its appearance, totally
devoid of the beautiful decorative
 initial letters of the page.
Yet here, as you can see in the
picture above the “M” of the
 word“Mendaleo”, is decorated
 with a floral motif.
The Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English at the end of the XIVth Century, is difficult to read for English-speaking students today. Many of the words in the text of Chaucer are no longer used or no longer spelled the same way. As an example, here a few lines from the introduction: 

And certes, if it nere to long to here,
I woulde have toold yow fully the manere
How wonnen was the regne of Femenye,
By Theseus and by his chivalry,
And of the grete bataille for the nones,
Bitwixen Atthenes and Amazones,
And how asseged was Ypolita
The faire hardy queene of Scithia,
And of the fest that was at hir weddynge,
And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge.
But al the thing I moot as now forbere,
I have, God woot, a large feeld to ere,
And wayke been the oxen in my ploug,
The remenant of the tale is long ynough. 

If you take a close look at the writing of the
Vercelli Book, you might not able able to find
a single intelligible work in English. Many of
the characters are recognizable as part of the
English alphabet 

As you can see, the Canterbury tales are difficult to follow, but it is, unquestionably, written in English. So when Silvia Facin, open up the Vercelli Book, I was perplexed. As I went through it, page after page, I did not recognize one single word. Worse! Even though the calligraphy is a work of art, some characters were unrecognizable. So here is not only a different language, but a different alphabet: the runic alphabet.

The Vercelli Book is like an Opera, something
that although we might not be able to
understand, but nonetheless is a work of beauty. 

Leaving aside the subject of the language and history of the book, let’s look at the content. The words “Mendaleo festam” are in capital letters at the beginning of one of the homilies. It can be translated as “Dear brethren.” Why a manuscript of homilies?

Estela and I go to Mass at least once a week, on Sundays, on Feast Days (sometimes referred to as Days of Obligations) and on other days. Almost always, the celebrant gives a sermon after the reading of the Gospel. Sometimes the sermons inspire us. It is quite evident that not all priest have the same ability of preparing a sermon.  Frankly, some priests bore us with their sermons. Priests have a divine office, but are slaves, like the rest of us, of human frailty. Writing sermons is not the only thing that they have to do. I once came up to a priest after Mass, and I said to him, "your sermons other times have been better." With great humility, he answered me: "my nights other days have been better than the one I spent last night. I spent the entire night beside a woman, administering the Sacrament of the Blessing of the Sick, until she died at dawn."

Giving a good sermon Is not an easy task.  One important aspect is the content. Another equally important aspect is to understand the audience, their interests, and their cultural level.

Saint Paul was a remarkably good spokesman, as was Saint Peter, but each one with a very different style.  Young girls wanted to forsake marriage and a life of comfort, after listening to the sermons of Saint Ambrose (340-397 AD), Bishop of Milan. Saint Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo, was extraordinary at composing homilies. John Chrysostom (349-407 AD), Archbishop of Constantinople was such an effective preacher that he was given that name meaning golden-mouth in Greek. Saint Patrick sermons allegedly converted the Celtic pagans to Christianity. Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1229 AD), founder of the Franciscan Order, preached to eager Christians, and when they tired of listening, to the fish in the river, to the birds in the fields, and even to a wolf who menaced the townspeople of Gubbio. Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231AD) was the most outstanding preacher in Italy in his time, and his tongue is conserved as a relic. Savonarola (1452-1498 AD) was famous for the fire and brimstone tone in his homilies, in the late XVth Century in Florence.  Savonarola’s criticism of the excesses of the Pope so infuriated Alexander VI, that the Borgia Pope had him excommunicated and then ordered him to be burnt at the stake. Felipe Neri (1515-1595 AD) combined sermons with visits to the Roman Basilicas, in the XVIth Century.  Martin Luther made the Bible more familiar to the masses, as did Jonox and John Calvin.  In our times, Popes John Paul II and Francis excelled. 

Pope Francis in Piazza San Pietro after
delivering a moving sermon on the
subject of  the Christian family.
. Pope Francis is a master orator.

In previous posts, we described the great missionary work of  Fray Junipero Serra (1713-1784 AD), the founder of the Franciscan Missions  in California. Before leaving Mallorca, where he was a University professor, he was a good preacher. But when he came to America, the audience did not have the cultural level necessary to understand his sermons. He adapted. He changed his style. And  he became successful in his homilies, and very popular not only for Spanish-speaking audiences, but even the Indian populations of Northern Mexico and California.

Statue of Fray Junipero
Serra, in the atrium of the
Propaganda Fide Missionary
of the Franciscans in
Queretaro, a master orator,
a great preacher, who
learned how to adapt
homilies for the most
diverse groups of listeners.

Sometimes priests memorize their sermons. Other times, they improvise. Other times, they read sermons they have prepared themselves or read sermons written by others. Undoubtedly the Vercelli was intended as a book that the celebrant could read from the lectern or pulpit, which explains the large letters. Or perhaps, the Homiliaron was used for conducting religious retreats, either for laymen or monks.  

Even more interesting were the six poems, a genre typical of the Middle Ages, of Spiritual Poetry, some of which may have been written by Cynewulf. His famous Dream of the Rood, which was possibly the inspiration for the giant cross of Ruthwell. In the Dream of the Rood, a simple English peasant has a mystical dream, in which the Cross sustains a dialog with Christ, and the Cross tells its tale that it did not want to take part in such an insidious event: the crucifixion.

Cristobal de Villalpando
merges the theme of the
Dream of the Rood, the
raising of the serpent on a
rod and the Crucifixion in
his masterpiece in 1683
 "The Transfiguration",
Cathedral of Puebla, Mexico
Cristobal de Villalpando (1649-1714) painter of New Spain, seems to merge the theme of the Dream of the Rood with that of Moses raising up a bronze snake in the Desert, So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived,” Numbers 21, 9. Is the word Rood in Old English as used in reference to the Cross of Ruthwell related to the word rod in Modern English?

Close-up of the painting by Cristobal de
ViIllalpando "The Transfiguration", where
we can see both the prefiguration of the Cross
and below the "Rod" or "Pole" in the Desert.
In the Dream of the Rood, Cynewulf portrays both the Cross and Christ as victims in this perfidy. The tree, from which the cross would be made, is savagely chopped down. Both Christ and the Cross are pierced by the nails.  Piero della Francesca took up this same theme in a collage of paintings  in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo, a series called “La leggenda della vera Croce”.

Adam, surrounded by his
descendants, wishes a leaf
of the Tree of the Fruit of
Knowledge of Good and
Evil, be placed on his
 tongue when he is buried:
The Legend of the True
Cross, Piero della
Francesca, Arezzo,
Tuscany, Italy..
Besides the Dream of the Rood, there is another poem by Cynewulf in the Vercelli Book: Elene. A poem about a women? Yes, but not a love story. For this Elene is not just any normal woman.
Saint Helen discovers the True
Cross, in another painting by
Piero della Francesca, in the
series La Leggenda della
Vera Croce, Arezzo,
Tuscany, Italy 
It is about Elene: Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, Saint Helen, the woman who went to Jerusalem to look for the relics of Christ, and especially, the Rood, the Cross.  

We can observe certain notes left by a cleric
where music was to be played during the liturgy. 

As you are well aware, when I write, I seem to change from one subject to another, seemingly unrelated, subject: a book in Vercelli, a poem in England, a legend of the Cross painted in a Church in Tuscany, a Spanish Missionary from Mallorca, a painting of a Serpent mounted on a pole in the Cathedral in Mexico. Please bear with me, if it seems that I am dispersed, for you will find, to use the words of Hamlet, that "there is method in this madness”. Ars Sacra Catholica, as is the case with Christian Art in general, is similar to a huge tapestry, where all ages and all cults are woven together, blurring out the difference of borders and dialects, intertwining them as it merges them.

Stains left by faulty restorations.

If computers can become “windows” for us, a book is like a “porticus”, a giant gateway, leading to discoveries, to exotic lands, to strange languages, to worlds unknown. The Vercelli Book is all of that and more, for it is truly, a Holy Book.

The horrible stains left by a failed attempt to
restore a page of the Vercelli Book using
chemicals rendered one page illegible. 
Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions: "Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee (God)."  The Road of Faith and Art is full of back trails and alleys, but that are all connected, and all lead to the same destination: the soul.
I was spellbound by the Vercelli Book which
I embraced, and wish that you can also someday
have the fortune to come and see it in Vercelli.


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