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Jesse D. Billett has written a magisterial work establishing the history of the development of the Divine Office in England from St. Augustine’s introduction of Christianity through to the Benedictine Reform. The first half of the book takes a wide view of the evidence for the use and evolution of the office, while the second performs an in-depth examination of four manuscripts containing the office that exist from the Benedictine reform (Royal 17.C.XVII, Rawlinson D. 894, Burney 277, and Stowe 1061). On the whole, this is a successful structure that allows one to see the broader narrative (including Continental backgrounds) along with a detailed look at representative manuscripts. The first half of the book can be read either by a specialist or by someone with only a limited understanding of the Office or of liturgical forms generally, as it provides a very readable history and explanation of the development of the Divine Office both on the Continent and in England.
The second half of the book requires a bit more discipline on the part of the reader. The chapters are structured as manuscript descriptions in a traditional paleographical manner without a clearly sign-posted argument. Then, almost appended to the chapter, Billett adds a strong conclusion in which he details the connections between this manuscript and his larger argument about the influence of the Benedictine Reform. While the specialist will enjoy the details of these chapters and the objective way in which Billett lays out the evidence, the literary scholar, who is perhaps dabbling in liturgical issues, can easily read only the very succinct conclusions in order to keep the stream of the argument and, perhaps, dip into the description in the chapters only in so far as it relates to their immediate interests. I suspect for most scholars, this second half of the book will function as more of a reference book and a research tool, rather than something to read from cover to cover. In addition to the descriptions of the manuscripts, the book includes their full text as an appendix and indices of manuscripts, liturgical forms, and Biblical references and liturgical readings. All of these extra tools make this volume an invaluable reference that would be handy for quick consultation in your library, or even in your office.
Throughout the volume, Billett rethinks the traditional narrative around the changes in the Divine Office in England, particularly the distinctions commonly asserted over the separation between the Roman (or secular) and Benedictine (or monastic) versions of the office. The Roman form of the office, generally favored by secular canons, has no foundational document or moment, while the Benedictine office favored by monks resembles the prescriptions of Benedict, although it evolved in ways that could not be imagined by him. The two offices are very similar, but distinct in the number of daily observances (seven in the Roman instead of the Benedictine’s eight), and the distribution of psalms, to name a few. Billett outlines the history of the development of the Office on the Continent and in England in order to unpack the distinctions commonly asserted over the separation between the secular and monastic versions of the Office. He argues that the universal adoption of the monastic or Benedictine Office occurred much later than has traditionally been recognized, since it seems to have been initiated by certain Benedictine houses, particularly those related to Æthelwold, and even documents closely connected to other houses show strong traces of the secular Office well after the reform had been initiated. [End Page 266]
Even on the Continent, “at no time before the ninth century was the Regula S. Benedicti promoted as the sole authority, or even a preferred authority, for monastic Office liturgy” (p. 77). In the early ecclesiastical history of England, it is not entirely clear what form of the Office would have been used, since we have no evidence for monks trained in the Irish tradition...