Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
MacCoull, Leslie. "Oral-Formulaic Approaches to Coptic Hymnography." Oral Tradition 14:2 (1999), 354-400.
MacCoull introduces the reader to the blend of exegetical, narrative, and folk elements found in Coptic hymnody (MacCoull 1999, 355). The Coptic language, written with Greek characters, came about around the third century CE. It was widely used by the sixth century and continued to be common until the later 10th century, when it began to be replaced by the Arabic language. From that time it remained in use in some liturgies for several hundred years.
Coptic hymnography has been relatively unstudied, despite there being a strong tradition of music using the language (MacCoull 1999, 356). MacCoull articulates a wide variety of scholarly questions which could and should be asked about this literature. She then discusses the types of hymnody which she can distinguish. First is a Psalmody, which is found "arranged according to the days of the week and including moveable feast seasons" (MacCoull 1999, 356-357). Another group consists of hymns to Mary, the Theotokia. Third is a collection of antiphons as the propers for the different saints' days. While there are dating clues, they are only occasional. The most common dating clues appear in the songs for martyrs, as it is clear the song would not have been composed prior to the death of the martyr. A few other linguistic clues can be found, but very few.
The Antiphonarium exists as a complete work only in some late Ottoman-era manuscripts. It progresses from the first month (September) through the twelfth (August) and places five intercalary days at the end. Though MacCoull identifies some earlier, partial manuscripts, there are few of these. The hymns in the fragmens are arranged in differnt ways, indicating to MacCoull that the manuscripts would be for monastic use, with morning and evening hours intended for meditation and prayer (MacCoull 1999, 359). The meter is the same for all the antiphons. All are strophic. Nearly all have a standard final strophe. The manuscripts contain some minimal pointing, though MacCoull points out that the later manuscripts, after the Coptic language was becoming less familiar, have more errors in the pointing (MacCoull 1999, 360).
The Coptic hymnography is a written tradition, yet MacCoull considers them to show significant oral-formulaic traits in composition. Specifically, she sees "recurrence of stock openings nad sock opening strophes, often subject to variation according to the meter" (MacCoull 1999, 361). Much of the earlier studies of this hymnography may have neglected the compositional methods, as they were conducted by musicologists, who may have taken a different type of interest in the composition. The similarity of openings became more apparent in 1995 when an edition of the work contained an index of first lines, causing the patterns to emerge more clearly (MacCoull 1999, 362). MacCoull describes and illustrates several of these similar openings. Their essential structure is the same, though nonstructural elements may change. MacCoull observes that collation of these elements and variations is an enormous task, just in its inception (MacCoull 1999, 366).
MacCoull observes also that the hymnody represents different types of saints: "martyrs, bishops, patriarchs, monks and hermits, holy women (ascetics or mothers), aposltes, as well as Old Testament figures, celestial archangels, and so on" (MacCoull 1999, 367). Her analysis shows that the martyr hymns are follow formulaic patterns to the greatest degree. She gives a number of examples of different compositions. Her conclusion is that many of these works were composed by oral poets who used elements which could be easily modified and connected to one another (MacCoull 1999, 371).
The Coptic hymnography is rich in doctrinal statements. MacCoull evaluates the way some of this doctrinal content is played out in the works (MacCoull 1999, 372ff). In an example she gives, not only is the concept of baptism and its relation to water and blood made clear (as observed by MacCoull), but there is also a trinitarian statement of consubstantiality which is not a necessary part of the hymn's narrative but which makes a strong defense of a critical element of Christian theology.
MacCoull raises the question of the identity of the composers and audiences of the Coptic hymnography, particularly after about 1100 CE when the language was really not well known (MacCoull 1999, 375). The tradition had apparently begun by the sixth century, when Coptic was still in active use (MacCoull 1999, 376). In the eighth through the start of the eleventh century there was substantial diglossia in the region, with Arabic being spoken in the marketplace but with Christians using Coptic at home. The use of Coptic eventually declined and died in domestic use. The language was effectively dead by the thirteenth century. At this time MacCoull observes there were tools used to train liturgists how to perform the liturgy, learning the forms as a foreign language (MacCoull 1999, 377). She does recognize that it would be possible for someone, having learned these liturgical patterns, to compose songs using the formulas and plugging in different vocabulary words that would fit a different occasion.