Liturgical Readings of the Cathedral Office for Saint Cuthbert
The Heroic Age, Issue 12 (May 2009)
The tenth-century rhymed Office of Saint Cuthbert incorporates language from Bede’s poetic Vita Sancti Cuthberti. The liturgical meditation recreates the reflective quality of Bede’s poetry and further realizes its figural significance to instruct laity in interpreting Cuthbert’s life. The newly composed chants incorporate poetic, liturgical, and Biblical sources to prompt personal meditation on the divine and venerate Cuthbert as England’s national saint.
The tenth-century Office of Saint Cuthbert for Vespers and Matins provides a medieval reading of Bede’s poetic Vita Sancti Cuthberti (VCM). The Divine Office magnifies the allusive quality of Bede’s poetry by integrating liturgical and Biblical sources with Bede’s poetic diction into versified chants. One of the earliest extant witnesses to the Divine Office is preserved in Corpus Christi College 183 at Cambridge. The cathedral Office, possibly written at Chester-le-Street, is preserved in the Cambridge manuscript along with Bede’s prose and verse renditions of the Life of Saint Cuthbert.1 As the first king to reign over all England (927–939), King Athelstan presented the manuscript to the monastery at Chester-le-Street between 934 and 939 in an attempt to unify northern and southern England through common veneration of St. Cuthbert.2 Cuthbert, whom Mechthild Gretsch calls the “pan-Northhumbrian Saint,” had iconic significance as England’s saint.3 As indicated in the Mass preceding the Office in Corpus Christi College 183 at Cambridge, the service was conducted on March 20 in celebration of Cuthbert’s spiritual birthday in 687 and on September 4, around 830, the date of one of his translations (Hohler 1956, 155). CCCC183 presents liturgical items unique to Cuthbert’s life that form the Proper of each Office. This study examines the significance the Office might have had for the secular canons who performed it to celebrate Cuthbert’s spiritual birthday, March 20. Bede’s poetic Vita establishes commentary on the moral significance of Cuthbert’s life through didactic verse that the chants enlarge upon.