- The Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of Psalms in the Early Medieval West by Derek A. Olsen
Few biblical commentaries in the Middle Ages were as influential as the sixth-century Explanation of the Psalms by Cassiodorus. Its author lived in an age in which educational and political institutions were being challenged at a rapid pace. Descended of an ancient noble Roman family, Cassiodorus served as statesman [End Page 562] under the Gothic kings of Italy, who had taken over from the last of the Roman emperors in the Western part of the empire. It is not clear what eventually prompted him to become a monk and transform his family estate, Vivarium, into a flourishing center of monastic learning. Unlike the asceticism of his contemporary, Benedict of Nursia, Cassiodorus' monastic vocation was found in the preservation of classical learning and the dedication to the Christian study of Scriptures. His love of the Book of Psalms may have played a major role in his conversion to the monastic life, Olsen speculates.
Derek Olsen offers in this study much more than just a sketch of Cassiodorus' life and an analysis of his Psalms commentary. He gives a compelling introduction to the role and importance of the Psalms in the medieval Church. Not only were the Psalms the liturgical means to praise God; they were also regarded as a compendium to all of Scripture. Everything that was contained elsewhere in the entire Bible was referenced here in a spiritual manner. Psalms were the spiritual life-blood of early medieval Christians, and Olsen convincingly shows how their memorization and their liturgical use served as a way to overcome what he calls the "technological challenges" of the early Church: language, literacy, and the textual transmission of the Scriptures.
Olsen's book details the influences on Cassiodorus' commentary: Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and, most importantly, Hilary of Poitiers, and Augustine. In chapters eight and nine, Olsen takes the reader by the hand and offers some detailed samples of Cassiodorus' reading of the Psalms. But what makes this book a model approach to medieval exegesis is where Olsen takes us to the manuscripts (a ninth-century manuscript from Saint Gall, to be precise), to show how Cassiodorus' commentary techniques were embedded in the educational system of its own time. He devised an intricate system of marginal notes and signs to signify figures of speech and other allusions to the liberal arts, a system that would endure in the later medieval manuscript tradition.
A chapter on the distribution and influence of the commentary concludes the book, and Olsen convincingly shows the key to the enduring success of the commentary: its adaptability to the demands of later centuries. Indeed, the reader of Olsen's book will be convinced that Cassiodorus' commentary has lost nothing of its relevance for today's Christian spiritual life, too. Olsen provides a very readable introduction to the whole world of early medieval spirituality and exegesis. The book is written in an extremely accessible yet never condescending language that clearly originates in classroom practice. If there is anything to criticize, it is a lack of references and footnotes, which have been kept to an absolute minimum. The bibliography is also rather sparse; suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter would have been welcome. These minor flaws aside, this book is a delight to scholar and layman alike. [End Page 563]