22 December 2008

A Sibylline Prophecy in 10th-c. Spain?

A recent exchange with the always interesting Kevin Edgecomb inspired me to do some research yesterday. Mr Edgecomb’s recommendation of a recorded setting of a Renaissance-era ‘Sibylline’ prophecy by the 16th-c. composer, Orlande de Lassus, prompted me to take another look at a cd in my collection: A Medieval Christmas, by the Boston Camerata, which features a chant identified as 10th-c. Spanish with what Joel Cohen calls a ‘sybilline prophecy [sic]’ translated into Latin by St Augustine. Here is the note:

In medieval Spain, on the night before Christmas, the faithful would behold a priest, disguised as an old woman, declaiming the sybilline prophecy Iudicii signum [here rendered ‘This is the sign of judgment’], which had been translated into Latin by St Augustine in the 5th century. (Joel Cohen, liner notes, A Medieval Christmas, by the Boston Camerata [NY: Elektra, 1992]).

Following this are the lyrics—a short text about judgment and the Lord coming from the heavens beginning (in English) with the words, ‘This is the sign of judgment: the earth shall grow wet with dew’. Of course, before I informed Mr Edgecomb about this text, I wanted to figure out what precisely was its source, so I opened up Volume 1 of the translated collection, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth, which I knew to contain the Sibylline oracles. Now, there are fourteen oracles plus fragments in this book, so I just started looking through them—quickly learning to pay special attention for the equivalent of the ‘earth shall grow wet with dew’ rather than the ‘sign of judgment’—until I found something resembling the text from my cd.

This I eventually found in Book 8, lines 217-50 (clearly, the chant on the cd only features a portion of the total poem). It is translated from the original Greek hexameters and identified as an ‘Acrostic poem on the judgment’, with the acrostic reading ‘Jesus Christ, son of God, savior, cross’. The first line (l. 217) reads, ‘The earth will sweat when there will be a sign of judgment’, a kinship with the translation in my liner notes being obvious (J.J. Collins, ‘The Sibylline Oracles, Book 8’, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, ed. James H. Charlesworth [NY: Doubleday, 1983], p. 423). But then I found this little jewel in a footnote on the acrostic, which is printed at the beginning of the poem:

This line is not a vs., but is the title for the following vss. (218-50), which form an acrostic in Gk. The first letters of the lines spell out Iēsous Chreistos (H)uios Sōtēr Stauros. It is not possible to reproduce the acrostic in English. A Lat. rendering is found in Augustine’s De civitate Dei 18.23. See also Constantine’s ‘Speech to the Saints’, 18-19. (Collins, p. 423)

So! Now I had the (I thought) immediate source of the Latin used on my cd! In a feverish sweat, with trembling hand I took down my Modern Library edition of City of God and turned to Book 18, chapter 23 (St Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods [NY: Modern Library, 1950], pp. 628-30). There I was rewarded with an entire chapter on this Sibylline prophecy (associated, according to the bishop of Hippo, with the Erythræan sibyl, who is depicted above by Michaelangelo), including an English rendering of St Augustine’s version of the acrostic poem that, in apparent defiance of Mr Collins, reproduces the acrostic in English with the Greek letters of the original acrostic arranged vertically beside the lines for comparison! The opening line reads, ‘Judgment shall moisten the earth with the sweat of its standard’, and Mr Dods’s translation continues for twenty-seven lines (arising from 3’s ‘superficial square’, in St Augustine’s words, to become its cube [p. 629]) of similarly beautiful English. (Incidentally, I also found a number of other attempts to preserve the acrostic in English here.)

St Augustine’s acrostic differs somewhat from Mr Collins’s. The former has: Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ υἱὸς σωτήρ (in his translation of the poem, Mr Dods throws in an epsilon before the iota in Χριστὸς, perhaps suggesting a misprint in the combined text of the acrostic in this edition, which leaves out the epsilon—come to think of it, there is also a misprint in the comments of St Augustine where he identifies the initial letter of ll. 5, 18, 19 as gamma rather than upsilon!). Also, St Augustine, having criticised the ‘bad Latin, and unrhythmical, through the unskillfulness, as we afterward learned, of some interpreter unknown to me’ in which he had previously seen the poem rendered, here introduces the translation that he reproduces ‘as translated by some one into Latin in good rhythm’ (St Augustine, p. 628, 629). Now, I did not know, and have not yet been able to discover, whether this was a modest admission that St Augustine himself is responsible for this translation, as the liner notes in my cd claim. Among other reasons against, it was my impression that the bishop of Hippo had not sufficient Greek to have managed it. But perhaps someone can correct me here!

My quest, however, to get to the bottom of these liner notes was not quite finished. I wanted to confirm that this text, which solely concerns the Last Judgement, really was performed in mediæval Spain in church on Christmas eve by a priest dressed as an old woman. Now, this was a much more difficult task, as I personally do not possess books that really deal with such matters. I was forced to rely on the Internet for the time being, which was slow in yielding to me truly useful information.

The first useful thing I did learn was that there was some sort of performance of this Sibylline prophecy, but that City of God was not the immediate source of the text that would have been used in these performances. These performances, and thus the chant on my cd, was inspired by a 5th- or 6th-c. Pseudo-Augustinian sermon, Contra Judaeos, Paganos, et Arianos, also known as the Sermo de symbolo, or Inter pressuras, in which the prophets (including Vergil, Nebuchadnezzar, and the Sibyl) are invoked to speak against the various persons named in the title (I found this in Richard B. Donovan, The Liturgical Drama in Medieval Spain [Toronto: PIMS, 1958], p. 165—on Google Books!; clarified somewhat by this article in Goldberg by Maricarmen Gómez). This sermon was the inspiration for a liturgical play, Processio Prophetarum, in which the Sibyl's poem was performed.

Then, I discovered 1) the reading of the sermon with the chanted Sibylline text preceeded its dramatisation in the context of the ‘Christmas play’, Processio Prophetarum, by one or two hundred years (so it is unlikely that priests would have been dressing up as old women in the 10th c.!—Donovan, pp. 166-7), and 2) although one of the three earliest (9th- or 10th-c.) manuscripts of the Iudicii signum chant is from Ripoll, in Catalonia (Donovan, p. 165), ‘In Spain the first definite evidence of an impersonated Sibyl is given by the fourteenth-century Gerona consueta’ (Donovan, p. 167; I do not know how to reconcile this with Gómez’s statement that, ‘The first documented source of the Sibyl in the Iberian Peninsula comes from an ordinarium of the cathedral of Vic [Barcelona] dating from the year 1446’). Thus, at the very least, I would have liked Joel Cohen to clarify that when he says ‘medieval Spain’ he does not necessarily mean that this would have been done in the 10th c., the date given for the chant itself.

Also, I have still not satisfied myself that the 10th-c. chant would have been done on Christmas eve until its later connection with the liturgical drama. Gómez tries to connect the Sibylline poem with the millennial fears of that century, but it may be that there is a connection to Christmas in Bernard of Clairveaux’s (and others’?) Advent idea of the three comings of Christ, in the flesh, in the soul, and at judgment (see Dom Guéranger’s discussion here). Furthermore, according to Karoline Manny, the pseudo-Augustinian sermon (and thus, perhaps, the Sibylline chant proper?) 'was occasionally delivered on Christmas instead of the Officium Pastorum'. But of course, there are no dates or sources given here, so I remain uncertain.

And that’s the rest of the story…


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Awesome! Well done, Aaron!

You're right to question Augustine's Greek abilities. Jerome constantly took him to task in that regard. But we was a true Roman, and knew and loved good Latin.

My only input on the appearance of the Sibylline acrostic in Spanish Christmas celebrations comes from the Liber Comicus, the lectionary of the Mozarabic Church, published by Dom Germanus Morin (see here). There's no mention of it there, and that's an early 11th century lectionary, so it must be a later development.

I'm going to pop in and look at Lactantius. I'll bet the Sibylline piece shows up in there, whether precisely the version found in Augustine and ps-Aug. or not. It's Lactantius that we have to thank to a large degree for that strange overlapping of pagan and Christian that is so popular in the Renaissance. He was terrifically popular then. Not so much now.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I left the link out for the Liber Comicus: my index of the lectionary's readings is here.

My copy of Lactantius doesn't have an index (of course), so I'll plough through the footnotes later and let you know. I'll bet it's in there. He's one of the major sources for the Latin transtlation of the Sibyllines.

Aaron Taylor said...

Actually, St Augustine quotes from Lactantius in 8.23 of 'City of God'.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Lactantius is unfortunately a dead end. All (or the vast majority) of his quotes are Greek. He also doesn't excerpt that particular section (ll 218-250) in extensu. Too bad!

There are numerous notes in the translation by Anthody Bowen and Peter Garnsey (fun reading) that indicate Augustine knew Lactantius' Divine Institutes very well indeed, and that he followed Lactantius' argumentation a number of times without attribution. That's just another indication that Lactantius deserves more attention.

Aaron Taylor said...

Sorry! That should have been 'City of God' 18.23!

That Lactantius translation looks nice. St Augustine, in the passage where the poem occurs, points out that Lactantius's quotations from the Sibyl are in scattered fragments, and that the longer Sibylline quotation from Lactantius that he gives (which is in prose) is compiled from these shorter quotes.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I see. That does describe the situation accurately. In Lactantius' DivInst Book 7 there are numerous short quotations from SibOr 8. I'll have to take a closer look. Fascinating!