22 August 2009


Around 700ish someone wrote a hymn about our Lady, Quem terra, pontus, aethera. It was subsequently divided into two and and thus provided a couple of Office Hymns for the Common of the BVM. The second half began "O gloriosa Femina". This was subsequently altered to "O gloriosa Domina", ["woman" changed to "Lady"] for reasons which are fairly obvious. Urban VIII's revisers changed it to "virginum" ["of virgins"]. They will have disliked "Domina" because the first syllable of that word is short, while this is a metrical hymn in which the first syllable of the word at that place in the line has to be long - as the first syllable of "femina" is.

(Never forget that the corruption of the Roman Rite began, not with Paul VI, not with Pius XII, not even with Pius X, but when, in the 1620s, Papa Barberini aka Urban VIII mucked up the ancient Office Hymns because he wanted them to sound more like Horace. This was the first example of the Roman Catholic Church adopting the "we've-now-got-printing-so-we-can-now-impose-our-latest-revolutionary-fad-almost-overnight-on-the-Universal-Church" syndrome which ultimately led to Bugnini. Protestants like Cranmer, of course, had seen the possibilities of this technology for liturgical devastation much earlier. Back to Pius V should be the traditionalist instinct. That is why, if you want to use English translations of the original texts of the Office Hymns as given in Sarum, Pius V, and the new Liturgy of the Hours, you need to use Anglican translations - done from Sarum by people like J M Neale - rather than RC translations by scholars like E Caswall.)

Vatican II rightly ordered that the text of the Hymns should generally revert to the original texts still for the most part found in S Pius V's original Breviary (not to mention in Sarum and the other medieval local dialects of the Roman Rite). Dom Anselmo Lentini's Coetus proposed, when dealing with the hymn we are considering today, restoring the original reading Femina [woman] on the grounds that " it seems to us very beautiful, since thus the glory of the humble creature raised to so great a dignity shines more brightly; moreover, Domina [Lady] spoils the metre ...". But at some point somebody decided that Domina ... even if unmetrical ... even if unoriginal ... had better go back into the text. I wonder who ... and do you agree with them?

Incidentally, the first part of the original hymn - what we know as Quem terra, pontus, aethera [Urban VIII changed aethera to sidera] - had a third stanza long since omitted, which Lentini wanted to reintroduce, but ... apparently ... here again he was vetoed by somebody. It went (I translate unmetrically):
"Therefore the ages wonder,/That an Angel brings the Seed [Lentini wanted to emend this to "That the Spirit overshadows her"]/ That the Virgin conceives by ear/ And, believing in her heart, gives birth." This, of course, gives a picture which relates to much medieval iconography of the Annunciation, where a piercing ray goes from the Father or the Spirit to our Lady's ear.

Speculate on the problems - and advantages - in that stanza!


Canary said...

I thought Italianate pronunciation didn't distinguish the length of vowels? Why would there be any real difference between femina and domina then?

Joshua said...

Mirantur ergo sæcula,
quod angelus fert semina,
quod aure virgo concipit
et corde credens parturit.

Hmmm... while most poetic, "angelus fert semina" gives rather a heterodox impression if taken too literally. Obviously, it is intended on a play on words: Gabriel asks the question, Our Lady believes and assents, the Word takes flesh. It shouldn't really be a difficulty. Only a simpleton would think the Word leapt down from His royal throne - then entered the Virgin's ear!

Joshua said...

This reminds me of a rather vulgar if spectacular theatrical device that the Franciscans in Adelaide employed at Christmas: apparently the empty crib was connected by a wire to the choir loft, and at the appropriate (?) moment a flash of light was set off, while a statuette of the Bambino shot down the wire into the crib for a rather unscriptural entry into the scene.

Joshua said...

How much evidence is there that the author is Venantius Fortunatus?

I see that Migne includes this hymn combination amongst that bishop's works (PL 88, 265A-C), though the very next hymn included there is the Ave maris stella (ibid., 265C-266B), which I recall is usually attributed to Anon.

Migne also reads "accipit" for "parturit" in the omitted stanza.

(See http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/02m/0530-0609,_Venantius_Fortunatus,_Miscellanea,_MLT.pdf)

The Welsh Jacobite said...

"I thought Italianate pronunciation didn't distinguish the length of vowels? Why would there be any real difference between femina and domina then?"

There wouldn't have been a difference in practice. This is why the "mistake" happened in the first place. By the 7th/8th century the first (stressed) syllable of domina would have been pronounced with a long vowel.

A renaissance scholar, however, would have been aware that the vowel was notionally short (even if ordinarily pronounced as long) and thus in need of "correction".

This prompts an interesting question. How well did mediaeval (as opposed to renaissance) scholars understand quantitative verse? Were they aware of the original vowel lengths (necessary for quantitative verse to work), despite the fact that in their own day length was merely a concomitant of stress.