Excerpt From New FOTC Volume: Commentary on the Songs of Songs by Rupert Deutz— Translated by Jieon Kim and Vittorio Hosle. Introduction by Vittorio Hosle.

This is the first English translation of a major work by Rupert of Deutz, arguably the most prolific Christian author since Augustine. During his lifetime, which spanned the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Rupert engaged in controversies on the Eucharist and on predestination and composed works on the Trinity, salvation in Christ, and other major theological topics.  An ardent defender of a monastic theology that focused on the interpretation of Scripture and the liturgy, Rupert is well known also for his distinctive hermeneutical approach to the Bible. His Commentary on the Songs of Songs builds on the long Hebrew-Christian tradition of allegorical interpretation of this Old Testament book but adds a radically original dimension to it: it interprets the text as a dialogue between Jesus and Mary and unfolds in this context a novel approach to Mary, who is presented as the teacher of the apostles and assumed to have participated in the Apostolic Council, described in Acts 15.

Carole Burnett, the series editor of our Fathers of the Church series, notes that “Rupert’s interpretation of the Song of Songs blazes a new trail into Mariological studies because it depicts this Old Testament book as a dialogue between Jesus and Mary. Mary is portrayed as a teacher in the early Church.”


This first translation of a complete work by Rupert of Deutz (or Rupertus Tuitiensis, as he is called in Latin) into English both needs and does not need a justification. It does not need a justification if one considers that Rupert of Deutz was the most prolific author of the twelfth century in Western Europe and that the number of the extant manuscripts of his works (over 250) surpasses that of many other contemporary Benedictine writers, including superior minds such as Anselm of Canterbury or Abelard (not, however, Bernard of Clairvaux or Hugh of St. Victor). His impact on the art of Germany in the twelfth century—architecture, sculpture, painting— was considerable, even though not as revolutionary as that of his younger contemporary Suger of Saint-Denis. And the specific choice of his Commentary on the Songs of Songs can be legitimized in this vein by the fact that only of his De divinis officiis are there more manuscripts preserved; of his numerous Biblical commentaries the one on the Song of Songs was his most influential. This is not surprising since the Song of Songs is the Biblical book most frequently commented on in the twelfth century, one of the most important epochs in the development of Europe.

On the other hand, the nature of this work certainly explains why it is not much read in the English speaking world. It is well- known that medieval Bible commentaries differ from modern interpretations of Scripture often not less but rather more than, let us say, modern astronomy and geography do from their medieval counterparts. As a pioneer of modern studies of medieval hermeneutics of the Bible, Beryl Smalley, writes: “In order to understand medieval Bible study one must live there long enough to slip into their ways and appreciate the logic of their strict, elaborately fantastic conceptions.” To be sure, the typological interpretation of the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the events narrated in the New Testament starts already in the Gospels and in Paul’s epistles; but it is still a long way to Rupert’s reading of the sensual love poetry of the Song of Songs as a conversation between Mary and Jesus. Modern readers of Rupert’s commentary who are familiar with Michel Foucault’s interpretation of Cervantes’s novel as a sign of the collapse of the belief in a unitary world in which awkward similarities connect its various parts (a belief still shared by the novel’s hero and crucially contributing to his failure) may even find this work bewilderingly quixotic.

Yet Rupert’s interpretation contains powerful new ideas that in the context of the early twelfth century could express themselves only in the form of typology. A fair appraisal of a past product of the human mind must both locate it in its historical context, understanding it in its own conceptual terms, and be able to see its place in an intellectual trajectory that transcends it.

In the following short introduction, I will first expose some crucial facts about Rupert’s life and works (I). I will then give a panoramic overview of the history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs before Rupert (II). Finally, I will point to some of the most important and innovative ideas in Rupert’s commentary and try to contextualize his hermeneutics within basic assumptions of his time—not at all in order to justify it, but in order to render it intelligible for modern readers (III). I am aware that the selection of the passages that I analyze is far from being exhaustive and could easily be supplemented; it offers only a glimpse into Rupert’s rich exegetical techniques. But it is simply not possible to offer a whole commentary on Rupert’s commentary in this introduction. I still hope that my examples will make it easier for the reader to find the meaning of other, often analogous passages and that this introduction may inspire a younger scholar to write a detailed commentary on this commentary, for it certainly does deserve it.

Rupert was born around 1075 in or near Liège and entered the Benedictine monastery of St. Lawrence outside the city as an oblate around 1082; his profession as a monk probably occurred in 1091, his ordination as a priest much later, in 1108 (due in part to a vocational crisis accompanied by visionary experiences). In 1092 he followed his Abbot Berengar into exile in France, when the latter was expelled by Bishop Otbert in the context of quarrels connected with the Investiture Controversy. He spent three years in the priory of Evergnicourt and returned with Berengar to St. Lawrence in 1095, after Otbert had been excommunicated by Pope Urban II.

The first two large books composed after his ordination were, first, an exposition of the Liturgical Hours and the Mass, insisting on the deeper spiritual meaning of their order, in De divinis officiis (On the Divine Offices). Second, Rupert engaged in the attempt to trace the doctrine of “the holy Trinity and its works” through a very extensive commentary on much of Scripture—not, however, the Song of Songs—as well as an analysis of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in De sancta Trinitate et operibus eius. The interest in a trinitarian theology had been revived by Roscellinus, whose position his adversaries considered tritheistic, unlike the canonical doctrine developed by Augustine’s masterpiece on the Trinity (De trinitate). Yet Rupert strongly deviates also from both the rationalism that pervades Augustine’s work (as well as that of Anselm of Canterbury) and the Augustinian focus on the human mind as the best starting point to understand the Trinity. The peculiarity of Rupert’s approach was “to make those deeds of God revealed in Scripture the primary and virtually the exclusive source of knowledge about His being, in effect to replace the mirror of man’s mind (as in Augustine) with the mirror . . . of God’s work in salvation- history.” And the key for the interpretation of salvation history was the Christian liturgy, around which the life of the monk Rupert revolved.

This approach explains why Rupert dedicated his later major works to the explicit commentary on individual Biblical books. The one on the Gospel according to John was written while he was still in Liège and allowed him to deal with more foundational questions of systematic theology than, say, the commentary on the Song of Songs. Full of suspicions against the rise of the “dialecticians,” whose intellectual agility prepared the way for the rise of scholastic theology as taught in the later institution of the universities, and lacking any specific philosophical interest himself, Rupert, a representative of the monastic theological tradition, does not focus, as the scholastic tradition will do, on the analysis of arguments or the elimination of logical inconsistencies from traditional theological doctrines. He wants to find truth in Scripture—a Scripture, however, that is interpreted in such a way that it points to the current belief and liturgical practice of the Church.

In the second third of the second decade of the twelfth century Rupert was engaged in two theological controversies, which led to his narrow escape from condemnation as a heretic. The first one was with the scholaster (schoolmaster) and canon Alger of Liège on the nature of the eucharist, a problem that had vexed the Church already in the 9th century and had been re-proposed by Berengar of Tours in the 11th century. Alger rejected Rupert’s doctrine that God in the eucharist literally becomes bread, as he had become man in the Incarnation, calling it “impanation.” Rupert furthermore taught that the sacrament should not be given to people publicly condemned by the Church and claimed that Judas had not shared the sacrament, even if Augustine—and most theologians after him—had asserted this. At the end of the first book of his work from 1125, De apologeticis suis (On his Apologia)—which is sometimes transmitted with the title Quaestiones in quaedam capitula Regulae Benedicti (Questions Concerning Some Chapters of the Rule of Benedict)—Rupert mentions that it was his denial that the works of Augustine held the same rank as the canonical books of Scripture that triggered the accusation of heresy. Indeed, the clear preference for Scripture over all the other authorities, including the Fathers, is a point repeated in the Commentary on the Songs of Songs (on 4.12–15; CCCM 26:89/143 here). Surely it would be anachronistic to see herein an anticipation of the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation (if only because the Reformation radically curtailed the use of allegorical interpretation). But it is not wrong to say that both Rupert and Luther share a much greater skepticism regarding reason and theology inspired by philosophy than most Fathers and scholastic theologians express.

The second controversy concerned the doctrine of predestination, a problem that had also newly arisen in the 9th century in the context of an interpretation of Augustine. If nothing that happens can occur without being willed by God, is also the evil that happens, for example Adam’s fall, willed by God? This simple question is notoriously difficult to answer, for, at first glance, it seems that either the divine omnipotence or the direction of His will toward the good alone must be sacrificed. Through a confrère Rupert heard about the solution that Anselm of Laon had proposed to this question: God’s will does not approve evil but permits it—a solution still upheld by Aquinas and Leibniz. In his short treatise Liber apologeticorum de voluntate Dei (Apologetic Book on God’s Will) of 1116, addressed to both Anselm of Laon and his pupil William of Champeaux, Rupert wants to know whether this theory has really been proposed and rejects it with vehemence. His argumentative force, however, is not equal to his moral outrage. In Chapters 5 and 6, he simply denies the legitimacy of questions such as “Why did God create people whom he knew he would damn and for whom it would be better not to have been born?” while interpreting them as signs of a dishonest curiosity that forgets that we are mere vessels in God’s hand (Is 64.8, Rom 9.19–24).

It can hardly come as a surprise that Rupert’s adversaries in Liège called him a rustic simpleton, unable to follow a complex argument, as he complains in Chapter 19 of the slightly later essay De omnipotentia Dei (On God’s Omnipotence). His intellectually more sophisticated adversaries reproached him for never having left the narrow world of the monastery; they called his theory “stupid” and said he was uneducated, unlike the teachers at the cathedral schools. The theological conflict was certainly rooted in different understandings of the discipline that have continued, albeit in more complex form, until today: is theology an autonomous discipline built on the interpretation of revealed texts, or do its main tenets allow for, and even demand, a philosophical clarification, which must follow its own logic and requires precise conceptual work, which sometimes may offend our everyday religious feelings? But the conflict was not purely intellectual in nature; it was also connected to different institutional modes of acquiring knowledge about God. Rupert resented the attitude of intellectual superiority displayed by his opponents in the cathedral schools, “as if in monasteries there would be absolutely lacking people who have knowledge.”

In the heresy trial of September 1116, Rupert escaped condemnation only because an abbot from outside his diocese, Cuno of Siegburg, presented a passage from Hilary’s Commentary on Matthew in which this Church father, too, denied that Judas had received communion. Rupert’s position was thus no longer as isolated as it had appeared. Still, he had made so many enemies that he left St. Lawrence to spend around six months at the Michaelsberg Abbey in Siegburg as Abbot Cuno’s guest. It is this Cuno, later to become bishop of Regensburg and be venerated as a Blessed, who inspired Rupert to compose four or five of his later works, among them the Commentary on the Songs of Songs.

In July 1117, after having returned to St. Lawrence, Rupert traveled to Laon to dispute with Anselm but found his adversary dying. He continued his journey to Châlons-sur-Marne, where William of Champeaux was bishop. The contents of their debate are not preserved, although Rupert tells us that it was hostile. Rupert describes his challenge to the two powerful intellectuals and clergymen as an unequal contest par excellence, in which, however, God was on his side. Many pupils, who formed almost an army, supported his adversaries; by contrast, he was a lone young man, accompanied by only one servant and riding on a humble donkey. He suggests that William died within a year after their meeting although in fact he passed in 1121. When one reads Rupert’s self-description, it is difficult not to think of the figure of Perceval/Parzival, who at the end of the twelfth and at the beginning of the thirteenth century fascinated Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

It could hardly have been expected that Rupert’s return to Saint Lawrence would have placated his enemies in the monastery. Even if he did not face a second trial, his doctrine that the angels had been created from darkness was used to level further charges of heresy against him. This
situation, connected with the struggle for the episcopal succession following the death of Bishop Otbert in 1119, led to Rupert’s final departure from Liège. He spent some time in Cologne, where he met Archbishop Frederick, who at that time had become a supporter of the papal party. But he lived mainly in Siegburg, where he deepened his friendship with Cuno. At the behest of Abbot Markward of Deutz (today a quarter of Cologne, on the eastern side of the Rhine), he wrote a biography of the founder of this abbey, St. Heribert, who was Archbishop of Cologne and Chancellor for Emperor Otto III. To his rich theological work as well as the patronage of the two most powerful clergy- men of the region, he owed his appointment as abbot of Deutz after Markward’s death at the end of 1120—hence the German name by which he is known to us, although by origin he was a Walloon.

On the one hand, his new administrative tasks as an abbot brought him into conflict with both Archbishop Frederick and Adolf III, count of Berg, concerning the rights of the abbey over the adjoining castle at Deutz. On the other hand, they led him to defend the rights of the Benedictine monks against other clerics, such as the Canons Regular and the Cistercians. For example, the dialogue Conflictus Ruodperti Coloniensis Abbatis cum Nortberto (Conflict between Rupert, Abbot of Cologne, and Norbert), also called Altercatio monachi et clerici quod liceat monacho praedicare (Quarrel between a Monk and a Clergyman concerning the Question whether a Monk has the Right to Preach), is Rupert’s defense of the right of monks to preach. We know that during Advent 1124 Rupert traveled to Rome and Monte Cassino. But all these activities did not prevent him from continuing his theological work and writing in Deutz most of his commentaries on individual books of the Bible (on Revelation, the twelve minor prophets, the Gospel according to Matthew, the Song of Songs, and the Books of Kings, the latter unfortunately lost). Of particular theological interest is the claim at the end of De gloria et honore Filii hominis super Mattheum (On the Glory and Honor of the Son who Became Man, as a Commentary on Matthew) that the Incarnation would have occurred even without the Fall. This is linked to Rupert’s denial that God had willed the Fall; and since he had willed Incarnation from eternity, willing it was not conditioned by the Fall. With his doctrine of the unconditional Incarnation, he Anselmian answer in Cur deus homo? (Why did God Become Man?); and he anticipates a doctrine that was later elaborated with more complex arguments by Ramon Llull and Duns Scotus and that was already found in the second question of the Libellus octo quaestionum de angelis et homine (Short Book of Eight Questions on the Angels and Man) of his contemporary Honorius Augustodunensis.

In addition, Rupert laid out his Christocentric doctrine of salvation in 1123/24 in De victoria Verbi Dei (On the Victory of the Word of God) and composed his last large book in 1128, De glori- ficatione Trinitatis et processione Spiritus Sancti (On the Glorification of the Trinity and the Procession of the Holy Spirit). He even sent it to Pope Honorius II, for the issue of the double procession of the Spirit from both Father and Son had become important after the Schism of 1054 between the Catholic and the Ortho- dox Church. In 1126, Rupert also wrote an interreligious dia-logue on how to convert Jews, Anulus seu dialogus de sacramentis fidei (The Ring or Dialogue on the Sacraments of Faith). In 1128, he debated in Münster with the Jew Juda ben David ha-Levi, who would later convert to Christianity. He was baptized as Hermann, became a canon, and composed an important autobiography, in the third and fourth chapters of which he narrates his debate with Rupert. Since unfortunately the late 11th century is a time of heightened persecution of the Jews in the Rhineland, the modern reader finds Rupert’s recurrent anti-Judaic polemic particularly worrisome

The institutional recognition did not prevent renewed at- tacks against Rupert’s orthodoxy. In 1124, Norbert of Xanten, the founder of the Premonstratensians (later canonized), condemned Rupert’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We shall see that even his Commentary on the Songs of Songs triggered sharp criticism. The feeling of insecurity that the continued charges engendered probably explains why in 1125 Rupert included the already mentioned extensive autobiographical reflections in his Quaestiones in quaedam capitula Regulae Benedicti and why the twelfth book of De gloria et honore Filii hominis super Mattheum is a long autobiographical text describing in detail Rupert’s visions leading to the confirmation of his vocation as an exegete of the Bible.

In August 1128, Deutz was ravaged by a fire. Rupert still had the strength to write a short account
of it and to compose in the following year a short meditation on death. He succumbed to it probably on the 4th of March of 1129.

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