aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On the Old English Metrical Psalms

Singað nu drihtne sangas neowe;
singe þeos eorðe eall eceum drihtne.

Sing now to the Lord with new songs, sing all this earth to the eternal lord.

Psalm 96:1 (Ps. 95:1, Vulgate numbering)

Didn't make it to church this morning. Instead, I read an interesting chapter on the translation of the Old English Metrical Psalms (9th/10th Century). We forget that the Hebrews sang the psalms; the Anglo-Saxons did not. Jerome's Latin translation, which all the monks used, was in prose, not verse, since the rules for verse in Hebrew and Latin were very different. However, he did use some interesting poetical devices in Latin, including subtle alliteration. The Old English poet/translator then produced a rendering faithful not only to the sense of the text, but to the aural patterning favored in Old English.

The OE Metrical Psalms were set side-by-side with the Vulgate Latin in the manuscripts. They were used for personal study and devotions. The OE poetic usages helped bring out the sense to the lay as well as monastic/clerical reader and assisted in memorization. The use of the Psalter as the primary introduction to the Scriptures for people who had their lives patterned by the repetition of the psalms meant that using words and sound-patterns of their daily lives helped them know and meditate upon the Bible.

What blew my mind is that the OE Metrical Psalms continued in personal use in the monasteries after the Norman Conquest for maybe another two hundred years. Which means that study of the Bible in English didn't stop between 1066 and the efforts of John Wycliffe in the 1300s. One of the distinctive features of the English Church tradition -- as I keep telling people -- is that the English always wanted to read the Bible and say their prayers in their own language. Widespread literacy came with Latin learning, yes, but the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons went deep into their culture.

One of my major gripes about low-church evangelicalism is that we have given up on the recitation of the Psalms and Scriptural canticles. We are not formed by the text of Scripture, we do not use Scripture as our worship language. So-called Bible-believin' (thump, thump) churches often use very little Scripture in their worship, and what they do use is poorly organized and presented with little feel for the shape of the language. Consequently, people find it hard to retain it in their minds and recall it in their hearts later on. Which means that a lot of evangelicals have a very narrow idea of the evangelistic use of Scripture, despite what they say.

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