Roman Singing and its Influence Across Europe

Roman Singing and its Influence Across Europe

Lecture by Christopher Page

Given at Gresham College on January 19, 2017

Amidst the increasingly material penury of the early medieval world, Rome and Byzantium (that is to say New Rome, now Istanbul) offered a continuing example of opulence and luxury that was expressed in worship with expensive textiles, precious metals and sonorous titles of office, including now the singer or cantor, that proclaimed supreme honour and eternal victory through liturgy. In the Western kingdoms, to maintain rich services, with a staff of good singers, was one of the ways in which a king came into his inheritance as surely as moving into the old governors palace. In this lecture we shall explore what the singing of Rome meant far afield: in northern England, Ireland, Spain and Germany.

Excerpt: From the late 600s onwards, signs of interest in the Roman chanting pick up sharply with the Anglo-Saxon soldier turned abbot, Benedict Biscop. In 674, when many churches in England were still essentially long houses constructed of wood and roofed with thatch, Benedict built a monastery of stone ‘after the Roman fashion’ at Wearmouth. Whatever else it may imply, the expression ‘Roman fashion’ certainly means large blocks of dressed stone. The house was dedicated to Saint Peter, and in 681 Benedict established a second branch at nearby Jarrow, dedicated to Saint Paul and thus completing his invitation that the greatest saints of Rome should direct their gaze to one of the northernmost corners of the Christian world. A great many miles, and a bleak expanse of the North Sea, separated Wearmouth and Jarrow from Rome; Benedict Biscop nonetheless worked hard to establish a spiritual canal between the Tiber and the Tyne where his twin houses were among the most exposed stations of the Catholic faith in the north. And they were exposed. The monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow faced a belt of pagan lands across the North Sea running down from northern Scandinavia to at least the modern Franco-Belgian border near Lille. Benedict Biscop knew what a missionary would find if he sailed round the north and eastern coast of Britain: ‘Frisians, Rugians, Danes and Old Saxons… practising heathen rites’.

To read the entire transcript and learn more about this lecture, please visit the Gresham College website.

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