CASSIODORUS Psalterii Davidici expositio

Paris, Jean Petit and Andrè Bocard, 1519


Folio, ff. (xix) 227 (i). Gothic letter, double column, title and printer’s name in red and black on t-p. Petit’s lion device on t-p within ornate woodcut border of cherubs, scrolls of leaves, flowers and grotesques, C17 ms. ex libris of the Benedictine female Monastery of ‘Beata Maria de Refugis’ at Aquileia at foot. Woodcut floriated initials, Latin and Italian marginalia to early ll. Light browning to a couple of final ll., oil spot to lower outer corner of t-p and next 6 ll., couple of early fore edges a bit chipped, light waterstains to margins of first and last few ll., little hole to one margin of t-p, very slight marginal foxing in places, early repair written over to lower margin of f. cxvi. A very good, large copy in contemporary vellum, covers a bit worn, traces of ties. Spine slightly cracked at bands.

A handsome copy of this fundamental commentary on the Psalms by Cassiodorus, “the only formal commentary on the entire Psalter surviving from the patristic era” (O’Donnell). A Roman statesman and scholar, Cassiodorus served in various high offices under Theodoric the Great and his successors, rulers of the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy, from c. 505 to c. 538. In his retirement, he turned to a religious life and founded the monastery of Vivarium at Scylletium, a centre for biblical studies and for the preservation of the classical literature.

Mainly composed in Constantinople during the 540s and then revised in the Vivarium until AD 570, the ‘Psalterii Davidici Expositio’ – also referred to as ‘Expositio Psalmorum’ – is an extended commentary to the biblical Book of Psalms. Cassiodorus’ main source for this work are the Enarrationes of Augustine, a collection of sermons he delivered on all psalms. However, Augustine’s writings were composed for a listening audience and organised in a quite irregular manner, not to mention their enormous length. For this reason, Cassiodorus was inspired to write a more systematic commentary which could be useful especially for students. The author devoted the second part of his life to composing theological and educational writings, in which he stressed the importance of classical pagan literature as a necessary foundation for Christian education. In his view, the Psalms were the necessary starting point for the study of the Sacre Scriptures. Thus, his commentary is primarily intended to teach, and it can be seen both as an allegorical and spiritual interpretation of the scriptures and a textbook on poetry and grammar. It has also been defined as “an attempt to marry the rhetorical learning of late Roman culture to the theological revelation of the Psalms” (Copeland & Sluiter). For each Psalm, Cassiodorus provides an introduction (titulus), a classification according to the genres of oratory, a verse by verse explanation and a ‘conclusio’ in which the most important points are summarised.

Despite being Cassiodorus’ most complex work, the Expositio is the least fully studied. Nevertheless, “it is a keystone text for our understanding of the rhetoric of exegesis” and it “helped to establish the Bible as a whole as a model text for rhetorical imitation in the Middle Ages” (Astell).

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