Gregory the Great and His Influence,
by Zachary Guiliano
The influence of Gregory the Great is so widespread that the great scholar of exegesis, Henri de Lubac, dubbed the period from Gregory’s death up to the thirteenth century “The Gregorian Middle Ages.” Preachers were everywhere citing, referencing, and, generally, re-using the work of one they affectionately called “our Gregory” or “the homilist of the Church.” Despite this unanimous praise, however, their uses of Gregory could be quite varied.
One trend involved simple repetition. For example, Gregory’s works, particularly his collections of homilies on the Gospels and on Ezekiel, as well as his Pastoral Rule, were sponsored by Carolingian legislation for re-use. Clergy were authorized to translate them into the vernacular and deliver them directly to their congregations, particularly when they lacked the oratorical gifts necessary for composing their own sermons. Various evidence points to similar uses of Gregorian material in Anglo-Saxon preaching as well, though without direct legislation.
Another trend involves the compilation of “new” commentaries for biblical study from Gregorian works. Immediately after Gregory’s death, his secretary Paterius of Brescia compiled a commentary on the entire Bible by extracting statements from Gregory’s corpus and rearranging them in the order of their occurrence in the Bible. Similar works were constructed until the twelfth century, often on particular books of the Bible, as with Bede’s collection of Gregory’s writings on the Song of Songs. Many of the Gregorian statements which Bede gathered were from the Moralia and the homilies on the Gospels and Ezekiel, rather than actual Gregorian commentary on the Song of Songs. It may seem strange to note these Gregorian compilations in relation to medieval preaching practice, but actually these texts were nearly always for the use of preachers, and they represent the development of a standard tool of biblical study in the period. Gregory’s comments on a single text carried authoritative interpretations for many genres of texts.
The trend most difficult to characterize, however, is what one might call the “Gregorian” cast of thought which characterizes monastic exegesis, as in Bede, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1178). Medieval monks and nuns were continually exposed to Gregory’s writing through the readings of the Night Office or through being assigned his works for special study during Lent. Hence, one often finds in monastic exegesis a hint of Gregorian phrasing or interpretation, which seems unmistakably to flavor the writing, though the influence is often unquantifiable.
Houghton Library MS Typ 205, a twelfth-century manuscript of curious provenance, stems from an original work, the Liber testimoniorum of Gregory the Great’s secretary, Paterius of Brescia. Paterius had composed this workby gathering sections from Gregory’s works, in which he had referenced biblical passages beyond those under direct comment. Paterius then rearranged these statements to match their order in Scripture, thus creating a “commentary” from Genesis to Revelation which enjoyed a modest circulation.
By the twelfth century, however, this text was partially lost and its text corrupted by interpolations. The text of MS Typ 205 was composed by a certain “Bruno” and used for studying the New Testament. Bruno’s preface states that his abbot, “Father Bernard,” often used one of these corrupted texts while studying the Bible, until, frustrated by its condition, he ordered Bruno to correct it. Bruno, however, could not find a complete or incorrupt version for comparison, even after gathering copies from surrounding monasteries. To complete his work, he personally reconstructed the commentary from the Song of Songs onwards. Bruno made few obviously discernible changes to the Liber, though comparison with Carolingian copies of the Liber shows that, while Paterius arranged Gregorian passages according to general subject matter, Bruno did so according to biblical references, aiding a reader looking for comments on specific passages. Also, various copies of his work show evidence of a deliberate attempt at making material more easily searchable, through headers, more detailed citations, and contemporaneous tabs attached to the edges of manuscript leaves (e.g., f. 7r) to aid the reader in locating material.