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Scripture and History in the Middle Ages / Schriftsinn und Geschichte im Mittelalter

Studies in Latin biblical Exegesis (ca. 350–ca. 1150) / Untersuchungen zur Bibelauslegung in der lateinischen Kirche (ca. 350–ca. 1150)

von Elisabeth Mégier (Autor:in)
©2018 Monographie 444 Seiten
Reihe: Beihefte zur Mediaevistik, Band 23


The studies focus on the question «What is ‹history› in late antique and medieval biblical commentaries?» The question concerns the term «historia»: to what uses is it put by the exegetes, and what do they mean by «historical sense»? It also concerns the representations of history in a modern sense, observable in the interpretation of the Bible. Answers are searched for in the vocabulary used by the authors, and by comparing different expositions. It follows that history as a text tends to give way, progressively, to history as the succession of real events.
Die Untersuchungen gehen der Frage nach: «Was ist ‹Geschichte› in spätantiken und mittelalterlichen Bibelkommentaren?» Die Frage betrifft das Vokabel «historia»: wie verwenden es die Exegeten, und was verstehen sie unter «historischem Sinn»? Sie betrifft aber auch die in der Auslegung der Bibel sichtbaren Vorstellungen von Geschichte im modernen Sinn. Antworten werden gesucht im Wortgebrauch der Autoren und im Vergleich wechselnder Auslegungen; es zeigt sich ein allmähliches Zurücktreten von Geschichte als Text zugunsten von Geschichte als reale Ereignisfolge.


  • Cover
  • Titel
  • Copyright
  • Autorenangaben
  • Über das Buch
  • Zitierfähigkeit des eBooks
  • Inhaltsverzeichnis/Contents
  • Abkürzungsverzeichnis/List of abbreviations
  • Vorwort/Preface
  • I. Otto of Freising’s revendication of Isaiah as the prophet of Constantine’s “exaltation of the Church”, in the context of Christian Latin exegesis
  • II. Christian historical fulfilments of Old Testament prophecies, in Latin commentaries on the Book of Isaiah (ca. 400 to ca. 1150)
  • III. Jewish Converts in the Early Church and Latin Christian Exegetes of Isaiah, c. 400–1150
  • IV. “Manifest prophecies” in Latin commentaries on Isaiah, from St. Jerome to the middle of the 12th century
  • V. Spiritual exegesis and the Church in Haimo of Auxerre’s commentary on Isaiah
  • VI. Senso storico e senso della storia nei commentari latini al Cantico dei cantici: dai traduttori di Origene a Onorio Augustodunense e Guglielmo di Saint-Thierry
  • VII. Zur Artikulation von Bibel und Geschichte in der Chronica alias Liber de tribus maximis circumstantiis gestorum Hugos von Sankt Viktor
  • VIII. Die Historisierung der Apokalypse oder von der globalen zur geschichtlichen Zeit der Kirche in lateinischen Apokalypsekommentaren, von Tyconius bis Rupert von Deutz
  • IX. Il senso letterale dell’Apocalisse: negazione e affermazione, in alcuni commentari latini del Medioevo monastico, da Beda il Venerabile a Ruperto di Deutz
  • X. L’histoire biblique pré-abrahamique est-elle un sujet pour les historiens? Jérôme, Augustin et les critères d’historicité dans les historiae de Fréculphe de Lisieux
  • XI. Die Kirche und die Bösen: Kontinuität und Umformungen in der Auslegung der „dritten Teile“ in der Offenbarung des Johannes, von Tyconius bis Rupert von Deutz
  • XII. Species und genus: Was wird aus den exegetischen Kategorien des Tyconius in den Apokalypsekommentaren der lateinischen Kirche von Primasius von Hadrumetum bis Rupert von Deutz?
  • XIII. Karolingische Weltchronistik zwischen Historiographie und Exegese: Frechulf von Lisieux und Ado von Vienne
  • XIV. Historia and littera in Carolingian commentaries on St Matthew. Elements for an inventory of exegetical vocabulary in the medieval Latin Church
  • Indices
  • Index of manuscripts
  • Index of authors and works
  • Selective index of exegetical vocabulary and some other characteristic terms
  • General index
  • Reihenübersicht

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Abkürzungsverzeichnis/List of abbreviations

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The studies assembled in this volume are united by the question: what is history in the Christian Middle Ages? – a question that frequent examples of resonance between the two genres have prompted me to extend from historiography to biblical commentary.

Resonance does not exclude dissonance: if “history” is also a theme for exegetes, their “history” is not, normally, the same as the historians’. The term historia they both use carries different meanings. In Isidor of Sevilla’s Etymologiae, one of the founding œuvres of the medieval world view, the exegetical and the historiographical historia are dealt with in separate places and contexts, rhetoric on the one side, biblical studies on the other, without any attempt of connection. Indeed if historians write “histories”, and exegetes interpret the Bible “according to history”, this means that for the former historia refers to a certain subject: it is historia de, of, about something – and for the latter it refers, primarily, to a certain method: it indicates a way of explaining and understanding a text. It is true that in historiography historia does not directly indicate a subject either – the events that form the subject are designated by the term res gestae – but its presentation in a narrative, that is, in a text. However, this text is defined by its content, that is, by the “historical” events it narrates, whereas in biblical exegesis neither the text, nor the explanation is necessarily “historical” in any historiographical sense of the term. In exegesis, in fact, historia is synonymous with littera, the written word, and can refer to all kinds of texts, independently from their subject matter. Thus, the historia of the exegetes is in the first place simply the biblical text as such, and if the exegetical and the historiographical historia share the formal quality of being a text, they do not necessarily agree regarding the subject.

On the other hand, the intrinsic difference between the two “histories” does not prevent, in practice, the “mélange des genres”, and my initial question can be supplemented by another one, namely: how much historiographical history do we find in patristic and medieval biblical commentaries? That is, if we understand “historiographical history” not so much as the works of historians used or quoted by the exegetes (even if this aspect is included) but rather, as the adoption of a historiographical point of view. Its essential characteristics (by combining the history – res gestae and the history – narratio) would be the interest in factual reality – historiae sunt res uerae quae factae sunt (Isidore, Etymologiae I,44), together with the establishment of narrations about the past – historia est narratio rei gestae, per quam ea, quae in praeterito facta sunt, dinoscuntur (Ibid. I,41). I add that if my questions may ← 9 | 10 → connect patristic or medieval exegetes with the historians of their time, they are also meant to connect their interpretation of Scripture with a general or “modern” concept of history based on the same principles: namely, history defined as a meaningful succession in time of real events. This concept cannot pretend to universal validity but is still currently used, after having been forged through the centuries, maybe not least by the authors I am presenting here. It is, in fact, this “modern” concept of history that emerges, gradually, in the exegetical texts.

I have started my investigation with the commentaries on Isaiah, taking advantage of some particular subject matters dealt with in these commentaries that can be qualified as “historical”: the “Constantinian revolution” (I), the Jews in the primitive Church (III), but my principal means of access has been the question: what do the exegetes present as the “historical” or “literal” sense of the texts they comment on? And my most important guide has been the vocabulary they use. I have observed, beginning again with the exposition of Isaiah, the occurrences of the terms historia and littera and of their derivatives, and of other terms usually associated with “literal” or “historical” interpretation like aperte, simpliciter …, with special attention to corporaliter (II), or manifeste (IV). I have then applied this kind of observation to the commentaries on some other biblical books; for the commentaries on the Song of Songs (VI), the Book of Revelation (IX), and the Carolingian commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew (XIV), I have established inventories of “historical” interpretations divided into categories, in order to show their great variety. (I hope that this effort will be continued by others, for the remaining books of the Bible).

I have dedicated a special study to the particular exegetical categories used in the interpretation of the Book of Revelation (XII), and I have also been led to take a look at “spiritual” interpretations (V, XIV): in fact the question of the presence of history in exegesis transcends the question of the use of the term historia. We can observe that the resonance I have referred to at the beginning is not always, nor even prevalently, created or facilitated by what the exegetes call the “historical” interpretation. Quite often, the relationship between the interpretation of the Bible and the history of the historians relies on what the exegetes see as the spiritual understanding, that is, certain real historical matters evoked by the exegetes can appear as the spiritual, not as the historical meaning of the biblical text (V). Likewise, the commentators do not always find it necessary to indicate their mode of interpretation, especially when their explanations tend to take the form of historical narrations (VI, VIII, IX).

That the biblical text as a whole refers to Christ and the Church be it “historically”, or “spiritually”, is, of course, unquestionable for the medieval as well as for the patristic authors we are dealing with here, but one of the ← 10 | 11 → novelties that appear in the Middle Ages is the tendency to combine the historical and the spiritual. This is connected with, or based on, the tendency to move from the prevalently “textual” or literary point of view of the Fathers towards “more history” beyond the classical distinction between narration and event. For the Fathers, who were educated in the antique tradition of literary culture, the “historical meaning” is the meaning expressed by the text as it is written, a principle that can give rise to problems in the case of metaphorical expressions which taken “historically”, i.e. “literally” do not make sense, and seem to need a “spiritual” explanation. The medieval authors much more readily go beyond the wording of the text to its concrete or practical content, which they connect with the experience of real life and with real history. So the meaning is no longer searched for in the text as such but in its real subject. Consequently, the reference to Christ and the Church is situated in their real historical existence – which however is seen, at the same time, as a spiritual accomplishment (V, VI). In other words, a general more “realistic” approach which is part of what could be called the “historicization” of the biblical message, and with it, of the Church (VIII), contributes at the same time to the “spiritualization” of history. (Robert Markus, in The End of Ancient Christianity (Canto edition 1998 p. 16) observes the tendency to absorb the “secular” in the “sacred”; what I observe in the (Latin) Middle Ages is more often the blending of both.)

Despite the increasing convergence of the two kinds of history, attempts of distinction exist. Frechulf of Lisieux and Ado of Vienne combine the genres but make an effort to preserve the particularity of each (X, XIII). Hugh of St. Victor, in his “chronicle” asserts the fundamental role of historical, that is of historiographical knowledge in historical exegesis, but in order to guarantee the preeminence of Holy Scripture he confines this knowledge to a subordinate position, devoid of a proper meaning (VII). However, it is the general “historicizing” tendency that prevails.

In this reprint edition the original articles are normally reproduced identically, I have, however, corrected some errors and added some bibliographical information; in some cases, I have modified the form of the references in the notes. The only substantial change concerns a passage in chapter VIII (p. 597 f. = p. 226) which in the original version disregards the difference between the division of time by the author in question (Berengaudus) and the usual periodization scheme of the “ages”.

I would like to thank, in this occasion, the experts in biblical exegesis, patristic and medieval, who have introduced me to their field of study: on the one hand, the members of the Society for the Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, whom I have been lucky to meet at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, in particular E. Ann Matter (University of Pennsylvania), Karlfried Froehlich (Princeton, Theological Seminary) and Frans van Liere (Grand ← 11 | 12 → Rapids, Calvin College), and on the other hand, the specialists of ancient and medieval Christian literature at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris), in particular Martine Dulaey, Alain Le Boulluec and Gilbert Dahan. I also owe warm gratitude to the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and to the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, for providing in two crucial periods a stimulating environment for my work. Above all, I want to thank Professor Peter Dinzelbacher for his continuous support of my research and for offering it, for the second time, a place in the “Beihefte zur Mediaevistik”.

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I.  Otto of Freising’s revendication of Isaiah as the prophet of Constantine’s “exaltation of the Church”, in the context of Christian Latin exegesis

(Sacris Erudiri 42 (2003), 287–326: Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium)

Abstract: Otto refers to Isaiah to prove that the “Constantinian revolution” enters into God’s plan for His Church. I compare Otto’s use of Isaiah’s text to the interpretation of the same or similar verses by the exegetes: Jerome, Haimo of Auxerre, Bruno of Segni, Herveus of Déols, Arnold of Bonneval, Rainald of St. Eloi, Rupert of Deutz.

The initial passages of Otto of Freising’s prologue to book 4 of his chronicle1, where he sets out to prove that the change from “humiliation” to “exaltation” brought about by Constantine enters into the plan conceived by God for His Church, are particularly suggestive; for a large part this is due to a series of quotations from the prophet Isaiah, which form the culminating points in the rhetorical structure of the text, and which are important also for Otto’s argument. In fact they are used as testimonia, proof texts, justifying in this case, instead of the Christian message2, the form of the Christian Church as Otto knew it.

In a first passage, Otto writes: “I think there is now no wise man who does not consider the works of God – no wise man who, having considered them does not stand amazed and is not led through the visible to the invisible. The Lord in fact, who had foreordained His city before the constitution of the world, and wanted it to be hidden for a time, at the proper time made ready to exalt it. Therefore at the time of its humiliation He graciously consoles it, by foretelling through His prophet the time of exaltation: Stretch forth thy tents, He says, and strengthen thy cords, and again: Whereas thou hast been ← 13 | 14 → cast off, I will make thee a joy of many generations”3. Here the divine plan is attested by a condensed version of Is. 54:2 and 60:154.

Successively, Otto relates how God chose the Roman emperor “to whom the whole world at that time paid honour”, as the person most fit for the task, “and gave him not only faith whereby departing from the darkness of error, he might come to know the true light, but also love whereby he might exalt His city with many honours and enrich it with many treasures and possessions.” Then he adds: “And that you may know that all this was brought to pass not by chance, at haphazard, but through the profound and righteous judgement of God, behold the Church who but yesterday was skulking in hiding and fleeing from every man of even the lowest condition, become speedily of so great authority that she rules kings, judges kings; behold her held in so great veneration by the world that the lords of the earth come to bow before her and worship the soles of her feet as she sits upon the throne”5. Here, after ← 14 | 15 → having been described in terms that recall Isaiah 9:2 and 60:1–36, the exaltation of the Church is validated as providential by formulations taken mainly from Isaiah 60:147, and reminiscent of (probably) 6:18.

The patristic tradition

It can be said that this association of Isaiah’s prophecies with the new era of the Church inaugurated by Constantine is founded in the most venerable patristic tradition. Eusebius of Caesarea widely quotes Isaiah in his Church history in order to describe the joy of the Church after its recognition by the Roman emperors, and in his Isaiah commentary he repeatedly declares that “we”, that is, of course, the Christians living in the time of Constantine, “have seen with our own eyes” Isaiah’s prophecies fulfilled9. Both of Eusebius’ works became models and sources for Latin medieval authors: the Church history in the translation by Rufinus, and the Isaiah commentary indirectly through St. Jerome’s commentary on the same prophet10. However there is no direct continuity between Eusebius and Otto. The medieval historians in the West who follow Eusebius did not in general adopt his references to Isaiah; even Hugh of Fleury, who in his Church history makes an extensive use of exegetical terms and methods11 and moreover asserts that Constantine’s ← 15 | 16 → conversion and favours for the Church are providential12, does not appeal on this occasion to biblical quotations, let alone prophecies. With the medieval biblical commentators, the association between Isaiah’s prophecies and what has been called the “Constantinian revolution”13 is fairly constant, but based on the more restrictive form given to it by St. Jerome – and tends to regress as we approach Otto’s time.

With Eusebius, the new and marvelous position of the Church under Constantine appears as an ultimate accomplishment rather than as a turn in history14. His enthusiasm in relating the events of his time and in quoting Isaiah’s prophecies in order to mark them as providential, are correlated with this eschatological perspective which, on the other hand, tends to remove them from their normal historical context. It has been noted that Eusebius never mentions the name of Constantine in his Isaiah commentary15; if he evokes prophecies fulfilled at the hands of specifically designated Roman emperors – namely the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of her habitants by ← 16 | 17 → Titus, Vespasian and Hadrian – this concerns the Jews, who have remained confined in time and history16, and not the Church17.

St. Jerome, on the contrary, considers the relationship between the Church and the Roman empire in a much more matter-of-fact way. Instead of adopting Eusebius’ general correspondence between Isaiah’s prophecies and the Constantinian Church in the light of eschatology, in his commentary on Isaiah he picks out a limited number of particular correspondences, which lose most of their transcendent aura. Or more precisely, St. Jerome takes pains to distinguish what he understands to be their transcendent or “spiritual” dimension, from the objectively observable facts18. Eschatological fulfilments of prophecies, if envisaged, belong to the spiritual sphere, but become a rather distant prospect, by no means related to the present situation19. And while we can speak of proof texts in the case of Eusebius, this seems much less appropriate in the case of St. Jerome who in his scholarly way is more interested in the correspondences as such than in their being providential. Moreover, as at his time the persecution by the Roman empire is no longer a problem felt by the Church, Jerome concentrates more than Eusebius on the main concern of Christian commentaries on the prophets, namely on the dispossession of the Jews of their role as the chosen people20. Consequently it is more the fate of the Jews than the acts of the Roman emperors that for him are likely to be providential, and in need of testimonia. Both of course can be associated: Titus, Vespasian and Hadrian have their role in Jerome’s like in Eusebius’ interpretation of Is. 2:6, and of quite a number of other verses referred to the tribulations of the Jews21. But if the fact that the Roman emperors, once persecutors, have become Christians, and protectors of the Church, is in his eyes an obvious reference for several verses of Isaiah, this does not receive the special emphasis given to it by Eusebius22. And it is probably for a more trivial reason than Eusebius’ that Jerome does not mention Constantine in this context: he has little sympathy for this emperor whom he sees as a promoter ← 17 | 18 → of the Arian heresy23. Constantine appears in person only on behalf of a relatively minor subject: we read that at the time of Constantine, “under the sparkling light of the Gospel”, together with the unbelief of all peoples, the ugly custom of male prostitution has been abolished24. On the other hand, the Roman background in Jerome’s commentary makes itself felt even without being directly expressed25; we must not forget either that Jerome adopts the coincidence between the Augustan peace and the birth of Christ which had become a commonplace in the Christian view of history26.

Otto, in a way, returns to Eusebius, combining the latter’s “providentiality”27 with St. Jerome’s historical realism. What I would like to investigate here is the context in which this return takes place: that is, I would like to describe Otto’s position, not only with respect to the patristic heritage, but also with respect to what has become of this heritage in the course of time. As in the passages that interest us Otto seems nearer to the exegetical than to the historiographical tradition, my method will be to study in the texts of the biblical commentators concerned, from St. Jerome up to the middle of the 12th century, the exegesis of the verses of Isaiah that St. Jerome or Otto have taken as references to the Constantinian Church. These verses are not exactly the same for both authors, but mostly taken from the same context. The questions that will guide me are: firstly, how important for the various authors is the relationship between the Christian Church and the Christian Roman empire28, and in particular the “Constantinian revolution”? Secondly, by what exegetical categories do they express their views, in other words: what do they consider as “spiritual”, and what as non-spiritual, “literal”, “historical”, “carnal”, in their interpretation of the verses concerned? And finally: what images of the Church are connected with all this? As relying on a very selective reading, my eventual conclusions will of course ← 18 | 19 → have to be verified, or falsified, by further studies29.

There are two prophecies in particular which according to Jerome are fulfilled by the Christian Roman emperors, Is. 60:3, and 60:10. The first reads: “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising”30, and is explained as follows: “This is fulfilled spiritually, and carnally, so that the kings whose heart is in the hand of the Lord, and in whose mortal bodies sin does not reign, march in the splendour of the nascent Church, or in Him who has risen in the Church, and bow their necks to the faith of Christ, the true king: this we see fulfilled daily when the Roman emperors, the error of idolatry and the fury of persecution having been abolished, pass over to the faith and tranquillity of Christ”31. Here we have, without mentioning his name, a summary of the advantages gained by the Church under Constantine: the conversion of the emperors, plus the end of paganism and persecutions. And we can observe St. Jerome’s effort to distinguish “spiritual” and “carnal” fulfilments, which represents a twofold difference with regard to Eusebius: the distinction itself, and the use of the term carnaliter, whereas Eusebius spoke of “historically” or “literally”, indicating by this, not an opposition between the letter and the spirit, but the reality of the fulfilment32. Jerome’s reason for preferring “carnal” to “historical” might be precisely the desire to accentuate the distinction, and thus, by changing the term, to eliminate the spiritual = eschatological dimension contained in Eusebius’ “literal” or “historical” fulfilments by the “rulers and powers”33. Another, apparently opposite but in ← 19 | 20 → fact complementary reason, might be the ambiguity that remains in Jerome’s image of the Constantinian Church. We might say that it is no longer eschatological but remains in a definitive, timeless present: the use of the adverb cotidie, and of the present tense are characteristic in this respect. Jerome finds (past) time and narration more easily in biblical history, to which effectively the term “historical” is mainly reserved34.

Probably for a similar reason, Jerome is not quite convincing in his distinction between the spiritual and the non-spiritual35. In the text we have just seen, he states it as a postulate, but does not specify what should be attributed to one or the other mode of interpretation. We can only conjecture that the absence of sin belongs to the spiritual sphere, while the abolition of idolatry and persecution, as political acts, may be classified as carnal. Jerome is more assured in his interpretation of Is. 60:1036. Here the peregrini, “foreigners”, who “will build the walls of Jerusalem”, and their kings who “will serve her” mean the gentiles and their rulers. This, Jerome continues, can be understood carnally, or spiritually: “if carnally, we see the Roman Cesars bow their necks under the yoke of Christ, build churches from public funds, and edict laws against the persecutions by the pagans and the snares of the heretics. If spiritually, whoever among them are princes in continence, eloquence and sanctity and subjugate to the empire of the soul the servitude of the flesh, those serve, assist and aid the Church whom (God) often abandons because of her negligence, or chastises by the rod of the persecutors, and again loves because of His mercifulness”37. Here the carnal fulfilment consists explicitly in the outward acts and decisions of the emperors in their political capacity as rulers, while the spiritual fulfilment is to be found in their inner disposition, ← 20 | 21 → that is, if some of them are also “princes”, or “foremost”, by their virtues. Still they are useful to the Church in both cases, and the final allusion to the persecutions and their abolishment – one must suppose by the emperors – which might seem part of the carnal fulfilment is here connected with the spiritual one. At any rate, as both modes of fulfilment concern the same persons, they appear as complementary aspects. And it is not easy to decide whether the personal “spirituality” of the emperors or the spiritual dimension of the Church creates the conjunction.

In these texts the idea of a change from a problematic past to a more satisfactory present exists, but is not emphasized. The change that holds Jerome’s attention is, as we said, not so much the passage of the emperors from persecution to promotion, but the passage of the Church from the Jews to the gentiles, and it is in this perspective that he interprets Is. 54:238 and the following. The converted gentiles, however, are the peoples living under Roman rule; when Jerome declares that with the image, similitudo, of the tabernacle of Moses, its curtains and cords stretched out and its stakes (omitted by Otto) strengthened, the Church is told to leave behind the exiguous “Jewish space” and spread out to the whole world39, Rome is implicitly present. In particular, the termini, “boundaries” or “frontiers” of the Church to be extended can be read, I believe, as an evocation of the Roman Empire. Moreover, among the moral interpretations of the “left” and the “right” in Is. 54:340 which conclude the passage, we find the recommendation of obedience to temporal, that is, of course, Roman government (the left), as well as to God (the right)41. So here also the union or at least solidarity between the Church and Rome appears, together with the opposition between the Church and the Jews. – As to the modes of interpretation, the prophetic text is treated ← 21 | 22 → at first as a metaphorical exhortation, which in Jerome’s view is part of the literal reading, even if he does not specify this by the use of an appropriate technical term42. The explanation of the metaphor is in any case separated from the spiritual sense, introduced explicitly by: “Let us pass to the spiritual understanding”. Here the tent and its different parts are treated as allegories of preaching and divine doctrine, and Jerome underlines the “spirituality” of this interpretation, by presenting it together with several others which belong clearly to the domain of tropology43. He starts the series with a consideration about the faithful in earthly tents yearning for the heavenly mansions; the re­commendation of obedience comes near the end, and the preaching of doctrine in between44. Here again, the distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual aspects is somewhat arbitrary; the geographical extension of the Church and the spiritual extension of Christian doctrine end up in a common result, the conversion of the gentiles.

Is. 60:15 receives only a short paraphrase, whose theme is again the conversion of the gentiles45. In the commentary on Is. 60:14 those who come bending low, curui, are those who have become Christians not by their own free will but by necessity, that is, by the fear of the rulers they dare not offend. Or else, they are the former persecutors who later became believers, like the Apostle Paul46. One can assume that the regnantes who induce even the unwilling to embrace Christianity designate the Christian Roman emperors, and we can note that while Jerome does not mind evoking the submission of the emperors to Christ, those who are bent down before the Church are not the emperors but their subjects. Here the mode of interpretation followed is not specified.

The medieval commentators

The medieval commentators up to Otto’s time all rely heavily on St. Jerome, in their interpretation of the verses we are interested in as well as in the rest of their work. However, there are changes, one of which concerns the distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual fulfilments. On the one hand, by that time the Church had become more “historical” if not “carnal”; it had ← 22 | 23 → settled down in its terrestrial present and past, the eschatological dimension having definitely become an affair of the future. On the other hand, in its capacity as the institutional body of the clergy, the terrestrial Church claimed its “spirituality” with growing insistency47. So it is not astonishing that as far as the Church is concerned, many authors abandon the effort of distinguishing between the “spiritual” and the “carnal” or “historical” with which anyhow St. Jerome had not been thoroughly successful. Concerning the emperors, the distinction remains, but is situated elsewhere. Most of the authors place the Roman emperors as well as other holders of temporal power wholly on the non-spiritual side, whatever the terms used. The new position does not yet appear with Hrabanus Maurus – on Isaiah, he only presents a slightly abbreviated copy of St. Jerome’s work48 – but it is clearly expressed in the second extant Isaiah commentary from the Carolingian period, now attributed without doubt to Haimo of Auxerre49.

Haimo of Auxerre

In Haimo’s commentary on Isaiah 54:2, the term “spiritual” is employed neither for the whole interpretation nor for any of its parts. On the other hand, the meaning of the tent and of its different components is much more developed than by Jerome, and Haimo uses the verbs significare, designare, intellegere, accipere and the like which Jerome seems to have avoided in this context and which suggest an allegorical = spiritual sense. In other words, instead of separating the metaphor, similitudo, from the spiritalis intelligentia as St. Jerome did, Haimo presents his whole interpretation as an allegory and thus makes it appear as entirely spiritual, whether it be concerned with the extension of preaching and doctrine or with the geographical growth of the Church50. And while Jerome inserts the former between the various ← 23 | 24 → tropologies which dominate the passage, and thus leaves no doubt as to his intention to place it in the spiritual sphere which he has separated from the literal one, the only tropology Haimo retains, namely the journey of the faithful from the earthly tents to heaven, is somewhat out of place in his overall ecclesiological interpretation51 – even if on the other hand it adds to its spiritual colouring.

On the contrary, in Haimo’s commentaries on Is. 60:3 and 60:10, the distinction is manifest. The emperors belong, not exactly to the flesh but to history or the letter – Haimo substitutes historialiter and ad litteram to carnaliter or speaks of a “double understanding” – as church builders, and as believers as well, while the spiritual fulfilment is reserved for the saints, or even more so for the martyrs and apostles52. We read on 60:3: “We understand here kings in a double way, either the kings of this world like Constantine, Heraclius, Theodosius and many others who had the faith of Christ, or also the kings are the saints, who as the sons of the King govern ← 24 | 25 → themselves well …”53. Similarly, on 60:10, we find on the side of the “historical” or “literal” understanding “the kings, princes and mighty who have built churches of Christ throughout the whole world, so as Constantine constructed twelve churches in Rome in honour of the twelve Apostles …” – and on the side of the “spiritual” meaning “the martyrs and preachers of the nations by whose virtues and faith the Church is founded”54. Thus instead of following Jerome’s parallel efforts of distinction between objective facts – the flesh – and what transcends them – the spirit –, with regard to the emperors and with regard to the Church, Haimo draws a line of demarcation between an ecclesiastical = spiritual and a profane = non-spiritual sphere.

Haimo’s preference, with regard to the Constantinian Church, for the term historialiter does not necessarily result from a closer association of the “non-spiritual” sense of Scripture with “history” in its more specific acceptation, that is, with the events of the past and their narration55. It is true that the Roman fulfilments now share the same terminology (or absence of terminology) as the Jewish ones; this suggests that the Constantinian Church is no longer an eschatological accomplishment or an ideal present, but, like the history of the Jews, part of a past to be remembered. Such a past is of course “historical”, and we can observe that Haimo shows greater interest than St. Jerome in specific historical facts, persons, and circumstances. For instance, he calls the Christian emperors by their names much more readily; Constantine is named at least three times56, eventually joined, as we saw, by Heraclius and Theodosius. But Haimo does not, in the texts quoted until now, evoke any ← 25 | 26 → historical change from a former to a new situation: the reges saeculi huius signified by 60:3 “have” the faith of Christ instead of being converted to it. So the change of terminology might find its explanation simply in the lack of a spiritual counterpart, which would have made carnaliter too pejorative. Moreover Haimo speaks indifferently of historia and littera and the vagueness of his “double intelligence” can be filled with any kind of qualification. It seems to me that Haimo is more interested in the emperors’ exemplarity than in the specific historical effects of their action. Constantine can be cited as a church builder in Rome, but he is only one among many kings and princes who “built churches of Christ all over the world, and supplied what was necessary for their subsistance”57. The formulation: ut Constantinus fuit, or ut Constantinus … et alii quamplures makes the Roman emperors appear as representants of a generic Christian rulership, more than as actors in history58. Haimo’s inclination to multiply the numbers of emperors named – as well as of other categories of persons like the Fathers of the Church59 –, might be a sign of the same tendency. Moreover, he apparently hesitates to mention as persons the pagan Roman emperors who cannot serve as examples; we find the peace of Augustus in his commentary on 2:4 but when he evokes the tribulations inflicted to the Jews by the Romans, he often suppresses the names of Titus, Vespasian and Hadrian mentioned by St. Jerome60. The king who guides the Romans against the Jews is God Himself61.

In part Haimo’s reticence against the idea of a historical change brought about by Constantine might result from an unwillingness to present the Roman emperors as the particular protectors of the Church: the “school of Auxerre” is known to have been connected with the court of Charles the Bald, ← 26 | 27 → that is with the origins of a Francia independent from the empire62. In fact Haimo never speaks of emperors, and as we have seen prefers the appellation of “kings of this world”, “princes”, or still more widely “the powerful”: reges huius saeculi, principes, potentes, and in his version of the expansion of the Church to the whole world the termini, frontiers of the orbis Romanus, have disappeared63. Maybe Haimo comes a little nearer to a historical view – that is, if history implies a narrative of succession and change and not only the memory of an exemplary past – when he considers the Church without referring to its relation with Rome. In his commentary on 60:14–15 there is nothing about the forced Christians and who might have forced them64, be it the Roman emperors or any rulers whatsoever, but the theme of the former persecutors who become believers is developed much more than by Jerome, and applied not only to the Jews – with again a special mention of St. Paul – but also to the gentiles. Haimo tells us that the Jews strongly humiliated the Church when they killed St. James and St. Stephen, but later humiliated themselves when they accepted faith by the grace of Christ, like St. Paul and the other converts mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Similarly, the gentiles strongly humiliated the Church when they killed St. Peter, but later, humiliated, they glorified God in the works of His apostles65. The same theme of the double persecution by the Jews and the gentiles appears in the interpretation of 60:15, together with the theme of idolatry: Haimo explains that the Jews hated the Church because of her faith in Christ whom they had crucified, and the pagans hated her because of her refusal of the ← 27 | 28 → idols which they adored66. Change – from persecution to adoration – is here an important issue, and Haimo introduces, still more than in his commentary on 60:10, historical information – persons, events, motives of action – not given by St. Jerome67. Still the term similiter and the repetition of quandopostea in the passage quoted above tend to turn the narration of change into its – double – exemplification. – Haimo uses here more terms designating the mode of interpretation than Jerome in the same context.

Bruno of Segni

After quite a long pause, the next Isaiah commentaries were composed shortly before 1100, by two fervent champions of the papal party in the investiture contest, Manegold of Lautenbach and Bruno of Segni68. Only Bruno’s work has come down to us.

Among the authors I consider here, it is Bruno who most emphasizes the importance of Rome, but not so much in relation to the emperors than in relation to the popes. In his interpretation of Is. 60:3, we find only the “kings and princes of the earth”, without any names or titles, who, “having abandoned the error of idolatry, march in the splendour of the rising Church”69; in Is. 60:5 Bruno sees the same kings and princes, “and Rome, the mistress of the world herself, come to the Church with a bowed head and a humiliated neck”70. Already Haimo had insisted on the theme of humiliation, present in Is. 60:14, but in his commentary the humiliation was inflicted to the Church by the persecutors and was suffered by the converted Jews and gentiles, without any mention of their rulers71: the peoples, not the kings, were concerned. Bruno on the contrary attributes the humiliation to temporal government, and to Rome in particular. However, he emphasizes, along with the submission of Rome to the Church, also her dominion over the world, which was ← 28 | 29 → to become the heritage of the apostles. Is. 54:372 has been fulfilled, according to Bruno, “in this noblest of all cities which has become the dwelling place of the two eyes of this world, Peter and Paul”73.

The popes, in fact, derive their primacy from apostolic succession, but also from their quality as Romans. On behalf of the rising Church in 60:3 Bruno writes: “Even if the Church is entirely fair and beautiful, yet its outset and beginning, namely the apostles, shine brightly before all. Indeed the others follow their splendour and doctrine”74 – which is a way of underlining the importance of the popes who hold the apostolic see. On the other hand in the commentary on 60:10 the prerogative of the popes is founded in their “Romanity”: as Romans they assume the function of destroyers of heresies, which Jerome had attributed to the emperor. Bruno writes: “Who indeed has built the walls of the Church like the newly arrived Romans? Whose pontiffs have destroyed all heresies and whose emperors have built the beautiful churches we see now”75. We observe that it is also as Romans that the Christian emperors retain at least one of the roles they had with St. Jerome. Nonetheless the popes come first, and if in the following sentence Constantine appears in person as in Haimo’s exposition, he is presented not so much as a mighty ruler as in the humble position of a workman: “The emperor Constantine may suffice us as an example, he who not only bestowed many gifts on the churches but also carried on his own shoulders the stones for the construction of the basilicas”76. Bruno, unlike Haimo, is not interested in Constantine’s faith; in the following sentence which comments the second part of 60:10, “in his wrath He has hit thee”, the “conversion” alluded to concerns Rome, not the emperors. Constantine only ratifies the new situation: “not only when she still served the idols, but also after her conversion up to the emperor we have just mentioned she has been abundantly stricken and afflicted by many ← 29 | 30 → sufferings: he the first ordered the Christians to be free and the churches to be opened”77.

In 54:2 the cords of the tent are not, as in the preceding commentaries, apostolic preaching, but the apostles themselves, with a precise historical reference: a particularly long rope represents the apostle Peter who came all the way from Jerusalem to Rome in order to fix the stake (of the Church’s tent), which of course alludes to the transfer of the center of Christianity from the former to the latter city, by the foundation of the papal see, just as the stakes fixed by St. Paul mean the bishoprics founded by him all over the world78. In fact “the Church made its beginning in Jerusalem which is situated in the middle of the world, so that it might find space to extend all around”79, but it obtains its accomplishment in Rome. When Bruno writes, in his explanation of 60:15: “Indeed the Church is installed in glory forever because this city is marked out among all and by all centuries as nobler and higher”80, he actually identifies the Church with “this city” which he does not even need to name, and whose splendour becomes the glory of the Church81. We find the same identification, or rather confusion, in the interpretation of 60:10 quoted above: “not only when she still served the idols …” Whoever served the idols, and then converted, can be none other than Rome, but whoever was afflicted, before being liberated, is certainly the (Roman) Church. – It is not astonishing that in such a “Roman” commentary there is again room for the names of the pagan Roman emperors, Titus, Vespasian and Hadrian82 – whereas Bruno has no use, in his exposition of 54:2, for the opposition between the moving tents and the rest in Heaven.

Bruno’s interpretation of Is. 60:14 is rather short; after having mentioned the apostle Paul as a bowed or humiliated persecutor, he writes: “we read ← 30 | 31 → that in the time of persecution many detractors and persecutors, suddenly converted to faith, cast themselves down at the feet of the saints”83. This is probably what Bruno hopes will happen, or has been able to observe in the case of one or another bishop or prince having joined the papal party. The “forsaken” Jerusalem in 60:15 in any case reminds Bruno of the problems affronted by his friend Gregory VII, or of his own84.

There is no distinction between a spiritual and a geographical extension of the Church in Bruno’s commentary on 54:2, in conformity with the tendency we already found in Haimo. But in the construction of the Church by the peregrini the distinction between spiritual and historical, clearly marked by Haimo, does not appear here either, which seems to contradict what we have said about the attribution in the Middle Ages of spiritual and historical meanings to secular and ecclesiastical realities respectively. Worse, we read on 60:5: “So that the strength of the nations may be brought to you, that is, the strong and mighty of this world. And their kings shall be led nigh, who rule them (i.e. the nations) carnally or spiritually”85. This is certainly an echo of Jerome’s double interpretation of 60:3 and 60:10. However, Bruno is by no means interested in reestablishing the spiritual dimension of the Roman emperors: in fact the two kinds of rule can be seen as pertaining to two kinds of “kings”, namely the temporal and the spiritual authorities86. Rather, Bruno goes a step further to limit the role of the emperors in the Church: in his interpretation of Is. 60:10 instead of distinguishing a historical aspect attributed to the temporal rulers and a spiritual one reserved to the saints and the clergy, he transfers part of the former historical fulfilments of the prophecies – the combat against heresy – from the Roman emperors to the popes. In other words, after having been expelled from the spiritual sense, the kings and emperors are also partly dispossessed of their position in historical exegesis. Yet, Bruno cannot be interested in qualifying the fulfilments assigned to the popes as historical, let alone carnal, if he wants to assure, at the same time, as a good Gregorian, the spiritual character of the Church. In fact the transfer can be seen as an enlargement of the spiritual sphere: having ← 31 | 32 → become the competence of the popes, the destruction of heresy is no longer a carnal or historical fulfilment but a spiritual one. But to present it explicitly as spiritual would probably have been too great a change with respect to the Hieronymian tradition. Conversely, since whatever attributions assigned to the emperors are certainly not spiritual, but are situated on the same level as the pope’s part, Bruno probably prefers to avoid terminological qualifications here as well.

On the other hand, and this seems to me particularly interesting, Bruno introduces an explicit spiritual sense into his interpretation of Is. 54:2: not a spiritual sense distinct from a historical fulfilment, but a spiritual sense meant to “spiritualize” the historical fulfilment itself. At least this seems to be the intention of Bruno’s closing remark: “That he commands to strengthen the stakes, is not void of mystery”: Quod autem clavos consolidare praecepit, non vacat a misterio87. By this mystery, the understanding of which is left to the reader, Bruno suggests, I believe, that the historical references to Isaiah’s prophecies he has proposed, namely St. Peter’s migration to Rome and St. Paul’s foundations of episcopal sees, include a spiritual truth. Here, it seems to me, the tendency shown by Bruno is opposed to St. Jerome’s, and goes far beyond what we can find in Haimo’s commentary. If St. Jerome is not always convincing in his distinction between spiritual and historical senses concerning the Church, still he tries to maintain it and in particular avoids, as a rule, the identification between the providential aspect which historical events fulfilling a prophecy tend to take on, and the spiritual meaning. Haimo, as we have said, rather neglects this distinction, but he does not openly claim the spirituality of fulfilments in the historical and institutional Church; we can note that in his commentary the spiritual fulfilment of Is. 60:3 and 60:10 is attributed to persons – saints, martyrs, preachers –, not to institutions.

On the contrary, the spiritual dimension Bruno evokes by the term misterium does not concern the relation to God of any individuals, emperors or saints; it concerns the events which have led to the institutional organization of the Church under the supremacy of the papal see of Rome. So if Jerome “spiritualized” the Roman emperors, by attributing to them a spiritual fulfilment of prophecies, Bruno “spiritualizes” the history of the Roman Church. And this can apply to the present as well as to the past. We have already seen the Church of his own time and its vicissitudes appear in Bruno’s commentary on Is. 60:14–15, albeit without an indication of the mode of interpretation. But there are other more explicit texts. On Is. 7:1–2 we find at first – introduced by: Sequimur ergo historiam – a summary of 4 Kings:15–16 where the events Isaiah alludes to are related (a league of ennemies threatening the Jewish kingdom). But then Bruno continues: “If we want to understand this ← 32 | 33 → allegorically, the exposition does not demand a great effort, whilst we see such great princes of this world leagued against this holy Roman Church; because a great number of our brothers and companions have surrendered to them, our fear and sorrow is considerable. Always, to be sure, the evil are allied against the righteous: also Herod and Pilate became friends by the death of the Lord”88. This means that a relatively contingent event in the history of the Church can be the allegorical, that is, the spiritual meaning of an Old Testament prophecy, in other words, that the historical vicissitudes of the Church are spiritual, not only historical realities89. The term allegorice used here is even more explicit than the misterium that accompanies the establishment of the papal see; on the other hand, misterium implies more than the understanding of the text: it evokes the providential character of the events, if not their belonging to the mystery of faith90.

This means that with Bruno, the exegesis of Isaiah’s prophecies is again, as with Eusebius, aimed to reveal a providential design of God in which Rome is involved; only, as we said, this design has to do with the popes rather than with the emperors, and it concerns the Church as a historical, not as an eschatological reality. One could say that while with Eusebius history tended to be absorbed by eschatology, or the spirit, a tendency against which St. Jerome reacted, Bruno – preceded to a certain extent by Haimo – goes toward the absorption of the spirit by history. And we can add that history, in Bruno’s case, is not a reservoir of examples, but is made up of stories, that is, successions of events, which are presented in the form of narrations.

Bruno shows a general tendency in his exposition to narrate actions instead of describing states or qualities. At the beginning of his commentary on 54:2 we are told that Moses “made the tabernacle“, fecit enim Moyses tabernaculum in heremo91, while Jerome has: tabernacul(um) Moysi, quod ← 33 | 34 → quondam habuit in deserto92. Later, as we have seen, the Church started, caepit, in Jerusalem, St. Peter has come, venit, from Jerusalem to Rome, Rome has been made, facta est, the dwelling place of the apostles; St. Paul has founded a series of bishoprics; or also, the popes have destroyed the heresies, and the emperors have constructed beautiful churches, the Church has suffered, Constantine has freed the Christians from persecution. It is true that Constantine appears as exemplum in one of the texts, and that many of the actions related are contained in subordinate clauses introduced by qui, perhaps as a reminiscence of the very frequent relative clauses to be found in St. Jerome’s commentary. But Bruno’s qui is not the same as Haimo’s ut, and in the case of the exemplary Constantine, in particular, the subordinate – qui et multa donaria aecclesiis fecit et suis humeris ad basilicas construendas lapides deportavit – is preceded and followed by several main sentences which tend to make a coherent narrative of the whole passage93. So effectively what interests Bruno are not exemplary deeds and names, let alone their accumulation – one “example”94 is enough for him – but rather actions with their agents: quis enim? and still more with their results: the establishment of papacy, the freedom of the Church, the beautiful church buildings we see now.

If Bruno adds supplementary historical data – for instance, Constantine having been the first to open the churches and to free the Christians – to his Hieronymian source it is in order to establish or to make more explicit his “story-line”95, in this case the one leading to Christian (= papal) Rome. Bruno also tells us the more general story of the salvation of the gentiles; we read on Isaiah 54:5: “As the multitude of the pagan nations deserted God and began to serve the devil, they remained (like) a widow and without a husband; this in fact began with Cain, the first born, and so they went on until Christ by whom they were reconciled”96. The beginning with Cain and the continuation until Christ do not appear in Jerome’s corresponding text97. Another ← 34 | 35 → opportunity for a historical outline is, for Bruno, Is. 54:11. St. Jerome interprets the stones “laid out by order” as the contrasting kinds of people, slaves and free, Greeks and barbarians, poor and rich, men and women… present in the Church. Bruno says, instead: “These are laid out by order, because after the patriarchs and the prophets there are the apostles and teachers and in the same way the others by order”98. “Virtual historiography” would not be an inappropriate term to characterize Bruno’s commentary99. And the association with prophecy proves the providential – and spiritual – character of the history he presents100.

The twelfth century

With the calming down of the investiture contest, the exegetes returned to less partisan positions, which they are inclined to found on the renewed authority of St. Jerome101. We have here, between 1110 and 1150, quite a consistent group of authors (excluding those whose commentaries were certainly written after Otto’s chronicle): the Benedictines Herveus of Bourg-Dieu102, Rainald of St. Eloi103, and Rupert of Deutz104, all born around 1080, and the Cistercian ← 35 | 36 → Arnold of Bonneval105, probably a little younger. Unlike the “Gregorians”, they are in general more concerned with the spiritual106 issues of monastic “reformation” than with the institutional issues of papal politics, and they have in mind a Church which is detached from temporal affairs107. This means, in exegesis, that the temporal affairs are not only excluded from the spiritual sense which is the proper domain of the Church, but that they now tend to be excluded from all possible – spiritual, historical, carnal – meanings of Scripture. To be truly spiritual, the Church should not depend on profane historical circumstances, and consequently biblical interpretation should not be concerned with precise historical references to kings, emperors and the like. Still this tendency can be more or less marked, and does not always prevent the weight of Rome from making itself felt. Another question – which the authors do not face directly – is the proper historical (institutional, political) dimension of the spiritual Church. – Instead of the dates of composition of the single commentaries, which are mostly not ascertained108, I will follow the order of the single authors’ greater or lesser proximity to St. Jerome, which corresponds also, roughly, to the greater or lesser importance they attribute to Rome and to the “Constantinian revolution”.


ISBN (Hardcover)
2018 (Dezember)
Biblical commentaries/Bibelkommentare Ecclesiastical literature/Kirchenschriftsteller Exegetical vocabulary/exegetisches Vokabular Historicization/Historisierung Sense of history/Geschichtsverständnis
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018., 444 S.

Biographische Angaben

Elisabeth Mégier (Autor:in)

Elisabeth Mégier, a member of the Institut für österreichische Geschichtsforschung, studied history in Vienna, Göttingen and Poitiers. She pursues independent research on medieval historiography and biblical exegesis. Elisabeth Mégier, Mitglied des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung, studierte in Wien, Göttingen und Poitiers. Sie betreibt unabhängige Forschung zur mittelalterlichen Geschichtsschreibung und Bibelexegese.


Titel: Scripture and History in the Middle Ages / Schriftsinn und Geschichte im Mittelalter