1 May 2020

Sappho of Lesbos and the Mater Misericordiae

Our Lady of Glastonbury, pray for us.

 One of the most distinguished classical scholars of the twentieth century was Edgar Lobel. He worked among the innumerable scraps of Papyrus brought back to Oxford in 1890s from the rubbish dumps of ancient Egypt ... where such 'paper' is preserved by the dry soil. Here in Oxford we still have great tea-chests of them, which are gradually being worked through; not unnaturally, earlier workers tended to start with the bigger and cleaner fragments, so that we are now down to the smaller and dirtier bits. Much of the material was ephemeral ... shopping lists, tax returns; even these, of course, are of immense interest twenty or more centuries later. But what has excited classicists most is the rediscovery of famous Greek authors whose works had failed to survive the fall of Constantinople.

So, for example, we now have extensive fragments of the great lyric poets of ancient Lesbos, Alcaeus and Sappho. Indeed, during the last five or so years big new additions have been made to the Corpus Sapphicum. Liturgists would be most interested in Sappho because she originated (or enhanced the profile of) the metre called the Sapphic, which is employed in a number of Office Hymns (especially those written in the Carolingian renaissence). The metre concerned is the one you may recognise as having stanzas composed of three metrically identical lines followed by a short one. (In the old Breviary, Iste Confessor was the one most frequently used). And Edgar Lobel was not only a skilled papyrologist, but a master of the rather strange and difficult Lesbian dialect. He was, quite simply, the foundation stone of Lesbian studies and a very great ornament of this University.

However, this post is not really about Lobel's work on Sappho. I just thought I'd like you to have a rounded picture of his greatness. Let us now, Zedwise, 'drill into' a most interesting Papyrus for us: an early Christian fragment with the earliest known prayer to our Lady. It is the brief formula we know as the Sub tuum praesidium, and is common to the Coptic, Byzantine, and Roman liturgies (pretty ecumenical, then, you might say). Edgar Lobel looked at it and gave his view (you go by 'palaeography', handwriting styles) that it was Third Century.

But when it was published, the Editor disregarded this judgement and dated it a hundred years later. Why? Was he an even greater papyrologist and palaeographer than Lobel? Not a bit of it. He just could not believe that such devotion to our Lady could have existed so early in the history of the Christian Church.

I am always preaching at you and the point of my sermon today is that a fair number of non-Catholic 'scholars', especially 'liberals', simply cannot be trusted to keep their own bias out of things. They are terrified that evidence might come to light subverting their liberal and semi-agnostic dogmas. So they are not above falsifying history. When I was an undergraduate in the School of Litterae Humaniores (Classics), I was surprised by the way that Ancient Historians with no theological axe to grind were so very much more respectful of New Testament evidence than were the old gents in dog-collars who lectured upon the New Testament.

Now back to that Marian Papyrus.  More tomorrow.


Paul in Melbourne, Australia said...

This is an amazingly interesting post, Father. I knew some of this in outline, but not these details. I admire Sappho and the freshness of her verse.

I often utter this lovely prayer to the Theotokos, μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη, in Koine, after the Ave Maria. I suppose the occasional person in the church imagines it is in Latin. One such person, overhearing me, thought I was the deacon.

You have written about this prayer on previous occasions.

PM said...

Dear Father

A.N. Sherwin-White is a case in point. His Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament comes down firmly in favour of the historical reliability of the New Testament. Was he one of your tutors or lecturers?

Apart from his standing as a scholar, I owe to a small work he produced for schoolboys my introduction to ancient Rome.