F is for Fisher

John Fisher (1469–1535) was variously a Catholic cardinal, chancellor of the University of Cambridge and bishop of Rochester. It is sobering to remember, that he was a victim of the wrath of Henry VIII and was beheaded on Tower Hill on the morning of 22 June 1535. His head was displayed on London Bridge for some two weeks after his death. His writings on the penitential psalms were published many years earlier in 1508.

For Fisher our Psalm 51 was Psalm 50. This was because he followed the Latin tradition, which follows the Greek tradition, in joining Psalms 9 and 10 as a single psalm. His work on Psalm 51 is a rich exhortation to deal with the consequences of sin and to lead a life of virtue. We get a taste of this in this short excerpt:

If a tablet has been foul and filthy for a long time, first we scrape it, and after it has been scraped we wash it and make it clean. Our soul can be compared to a tablet on which nothing was painted. Nevertheless, with many misdeeds and spots of sin we have defiled and made it deformed in the sight of God. Therefore, it is necessary that it should be scraped, washed, and wiped. It shall be scraped by the inward sorrow and compunction of the heart when we are sorry for our sin; it shall be washed with tears from our eyes when we acknowledge and confess our sin; and lastly, it will be wiped and made clean when we try to make amends and do satisfaction by good deeds for our sins.

Gardiner, 1998, p.102

We note Fisher’s concern with the soul and that the Psalms are very much the language of the soul. Nevertheless, it is important t note that the psalmist knows nothing of a soul/body duality. For the psalmist the word ‘soul’ has a connotation of ‘their very being’. It is, of course, quite possible that Fisher has a more dualistic understanding than that of the psalmist. Like other interpreters of his time, Fisher uses the word compunction, which we considered in an earlier post: C is for Contrition and Compunction.

This short excerpt is focused very much on sin as misdeeds. Later posts will consider broader definitions of sin. The emphasis on misdeeds ties closely to the medieval practice of Penance. The closing sentence of the above quotation refers to the deeds required by this doctrine as the final stage of Penance. We will return in a later post to explore the differences between penitence and penance. For now, we note that Psalm 51 was central to both ideas in the Middle Ages. It was one of the seven texts recommended for lay Christians to use to express penitence. In a similar way it was a text given by a priest to say as one of the deeds to demonstrate Penance. In this way Psalm 51 was an everyday reality for many during the medieval period.

Saint John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (Translator and editor), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.

E is for Eleanor Hull

Dame Eleanor Hull (c.1390–1460) is primarily known for translating a French commentary on the penitential psalms. The original French work dates from the late twelfth century. Eleanor’s father, Sir John Malet of Enmore, in Somerset, was a retainer of John of Gaunt. Eleanor was well-connected not only by birth but in marriage too, as her husband, John Hull, was also a retainer of John of Gaunt. He later became ambassador to Castile during the reigns of both Henry IV and Henry V. In her last years, having been widowed and her only son Edward having died in 1453, she retired to the Benedictine nunnery in Cannington, Somerset, close to the family home. It was there that she made her translation of the penitential psalms text. More biographical information can be found in Barratt (2003).

Hull’s translation was part of a growing interest in the seven psalms in the medieval period. Psalm 51 occupies pride of place because it is not only the middle psalm of the seven, but its heading, or superscription, began to play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all of the penitential psalms. We will let the opening words of Hull’s commentary of Psalm 51 explain part of the reasoning why this was the case.

This Middle English text is not as daunting as it first appears. It is best read aloud, noting that ‘þ’ is pronounced as the modern ‘th’, ‘y’ is frequently there as an ‘i’, ‘u’ is frequently said as ‘v’, and ‘Ʒ’ is pronounced ‘g’:

This tytyl seythe, ‘in þe end, of þe psalmis of Dauid.’ Here by-fore ye haue herd what a tytyl ys. The tytyl ys þe entre of þe techyng for-to vndyrstond þe psalme. Psalme, he seythe, ys þe preysyng of God with song that is browht forthe by suetnes of þe euerlastyng ioye, and for that Dauid had for-Ʒete the preysyng of God al-myghty for þe veyne pleasance of his flessche, he made þis psalme wher-of þe tytyl sownyth, ‘in þe end, of þe psalmis of Dauid’. And hit sownyth as moche as þer-of he seyd, ‘Y haue be wykkid and wrecchyd al my lyfe vn-to now, but now schal y drawe towards hym that is þe ende of al euelys, and in þis proffytable ende that is þe begynnyng of al goodness that euer were and euer schal be y schal begynne my presyng besechyng þe al-myghty that he make me worþy to preyǀse hym aftyr his gret mercy and that he forƷeue me my mysdedys. And þer-for with gret repentance y seye and with feruent dezyre of myn hert: Miserere mei deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Barratt, 1995

These opening words argue that the title of the psalm is the interpretive key to understanding it. It echoes the importance of King David noted in C is for Contrition and Compunction. It does this by considering two components of the title. The part rendered ‘in þe end’ defied translators of the original Hebrew for centuries but we recognise this today as meaning ‘for the leader’, i.e. that this is a performance directive. This part of the title is of only small account for Hull. More importantly, ‘of þe psalmis of Dauid’ is taken in the text above as a statement of Davidic authorship. Today we would render this ‘Of David’ and recognise the ambiguity of the ‘of’ as implicit in the Hebrew text—it could mean authorship, association, dedication, etc. Despite these recent developments the basic premise of reading through a Davidic lens is still one, among a number of, possible reading. For Hull such a reading dominated, although her work is interpretively complex and nuanced.

Hull’s work is part of a movement in the medieval period to read the penitential psalms, and in fact the whole Psalter, through the heading of Psalm 51 and King David. Much literature and poetry that followed Hull had a more singular focus on David. In a later post we will return to the heading of Psalm 51 and the story that it alludes to in its mention of Nathan and Bathsheba.

Alexandra Barratt (editor), The Seven Psalms: A Commentary in the Penitential Psalms Translated from the French by Dame Eleanor Hull, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Alexandra Barratt, ‘Dame Eleanor Hull: The Translator at Work’, Medium Ævum, 272 (2), 277-296, 2003.


D is for Dante

Dante Alighieri is known for his poetic work Inferno. This work is not just famous, it is infamous. Nevertheless, infamy rarely means well understood. This epic fourteenth-century Italian poem recounts a journey through hell and is one of three poems that form a whole: The Divine Comedy or Commedia, to give it its simple Italian title. The three parts are Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. A journey through hell, purgatory and paradise might seem a long way from Psalm 51. There are, however, a number of connections between our psalm and Dante’s work. This post will explore just part of this wider relationship.

Dante (1265–1321) wrote his Commedia whilst in exile from his city of birth, Florence. There’s not time to go into how he came to be banished from his home city, but we can note, with some amusement, that the details are still potentially the subject of a court case, some seven hundred years after his death, see this recent newspaper article:

Daily Telegraph February 2021

For many years the little I knew of Dante’s work meant that I wrote it off as an unhelpful dwelling on the worst kind of over-literalisation of the afterlife. More recently, I have discovered that a number of people that I hold in high regard value Dante’s work—indeed they seem to prize it, as not only worthwhile literature, but claimed it has a spiritual, even transformative potential.

That Dante has a richer and more nuanced intent than macabre speculation on the afterlife is evident at the outset. The opening three lines refer to the proverbial midlife crisis or, to put it another way, lost soul. Here they are:

At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
Through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost. [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.3]

We soon discover that Dante is not just lost but that he is being pursued by beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. It becomes apparent that these three animals represent specific sins that Dante is struggling with. The three respectively represent lust, pride and avarice. At line 65 in the first of 34 Cantos we meet Psalm 51 crystallised in one word—Miserere—such was its medieval importance. In context we have:

Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
To him I screamed my ‘Miserere’: ‘Save me,
Whatever—shadow or truly man—you be.’ [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.5]

This call of mercy, arising from fear, will in fact be answered. Our interest is that for Dante  his hope of an answer to all of his desperate mid-life sin and fear can crystallised in a single psalm—Psalm 51. Even more remarkable is the fact that the fame of Psalm 51 is such that it is called to mind for Dante, and his readers, in a single word. He calls miserere centuries before Allegri celebrates this same psalm in his own musical cry for mercy.

It turns out that Dante is not beset by a shadow but that this is none other than Dante’s hero poet Virgil. Virgil has been sent on an act of mercy by Dante’s departed love Beatrice. Dante does not yet know it but his prayer, his cry for mercy, has already been answered.

Psalm 51 features in both Purgatorio and Paradiso but that story must await another time and place.

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Robin Kirkpatrick (translator and editor), London: Penguin Books, 2012.

C is for Contrition and Compunction

In English translations of Psalm 51 the word contrite is often used, for example as here in the NRSV:

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:17, NRSV

In the Hebrew text the ‘contrition’ centres on brokenness—it is the person who has experienced brokenness that is ready to ask God for forgiveness. The term contrition conveys a steady attitude of awareness of one’s frailty and wrongdoing before God. The use of Psalm 51 in church liturgy is meant, among other things, to provide space for the worshipper’s self-examination as to their contrition.

Such an attitude is the foundation on which being penitent is built. As Psalm 51 claims this is the sort of sacrifice that God looks for. The word compunction is a much more dramatic experience than contrition. It is the sudden awareness of one’s moral fragility and need for repentance. This term for such an experience and the theological idea originated in Acts 2:37, its only direct biblical precedent. There we read:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Acts 2:37, NRSV

The phrase ‘cut to the heart’ was translated from the Greek into Latin as compuncti sunt corde. In later medieval theology the term become very popular as an experience of the piercing of the heart. This is watered down in modern English parlance as the derivative notion of the pricking of one’s conscience. In the Middle Ages both the terms contrition and compunction became central to personal faith. This became centred on Psalm 51. We have already seen that it mentions contrition (broken-heartedness) so where does compunction come in?

In brief, Psalm 51 has a heading which mentions the terrible story of how King David committed both adultery and murder. When this heading is taken as a lens with rich to read Psalm 51 then the importance of David’s contrition becomes even more apparent. In the Middle Ages, David through the Psalms which are traditionally attributed to him, became a model of penitence and an exemplar of contrition. This became a lens through which all seven of the penitential psalms were read at this time. In Psalm 32:4 the Latin translation has a phrase:

Conversus sum in aerumna mea dum configitur mihi spina.


I am turned in my anguish, while the thorn is fastened in me. [After Kuczynski, 1995]

Via this thorn, David was understood to show compunction as well as contrition. We will return to David in several future posts on Psalm 51, including the next.

Michael P. Kuczynski, Prophetic Song: The Psalms as Moral Discourse in Late Medieval England, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

B is for Bones

Psalm 51 is one of seven psalms that have been grouped together and known as the penitential psalms since the sixth century. These seven psalms frequently touch on what today is often judged to be an unsavoury and unwelcome idea—the notion that God not only exhibits anger but shows his divine displeasure as wrath. In verse 8 of Psalm 51 we read:

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Psalm 51:8, NRSV

The psalmist either has experienced, or they think they have experienced, God’s hand against them. The wider context of the psalm, in which they are asking for forgiveness, suggests a causal link between sin and wrath. This post is not going to unravel this knotty theological issue, although other posts in this A-to-Z will return to this subject. For the moment we are going to explore one thread of this matter—a concern crystallised in the very bones of the psalmist.

Three of the other penitential psalms also mention the psalmist’s bones. In the first penitential psalm we read:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
Psalm 6:2, NRSV

In this psalm the shaking bones are part of a wider range of symptoms. It is unclear, however, just what ailment the psalmist is experiencing. There is here, and elsewhere, in the Psalter an ambiguity as to whether the ailments are literal or metaphorical. It is possible that this contributed to the preservation of such psalm as they are so readily appropriated by others. Whether this ambiguity aided its preservation, or not, it is undoubtedly an asset to have a readily re-readable prayer as part of a Prayerbook. The previous verse of Psalm 6 indicates that the cause of bones shaking with terror could be fear of God’s anger. Such a possibility is even more clearly found in Psalm 38, the third of the penitential psalms:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
Psalm 38:3, NRSV

The fifth penitential psalm also makes mention of the psalmist’s bones. Here they are burning like a furnace:

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
Psalm 102:3, NRSV

What we make of this depends on a decision as to how we read this psalm. If we see it as a penitential psalm, then like in the other cases we can see this as being the result of sin, or at least understood in this way by the poet. If we read the psalm on its own terms we could come to several alternative conclusions: extreme loneliness, illness, oppression by the community, depression. Each, perhaps all of these, could each account for the psalm’s content. Such categories are arguably anachronistic given the two and half millennia between the psalmist and us.

Such orthopaedic prayer language is far from the beauty of Allegri and yet, make no bones about it, it is likely to have touched even more lives than the Italian priest’s glorious composition. One wonders how many people have found strength in bringing their assorted troubles to God in these prayers.

A is for Allegri

This is the first bitesize post of a series of twenty-six. The series will be an A to Z for two reasons. The first reason is that I am joining the #AtoZChallenge which is an event in which participants blog their way through April in twenty-six acrostic posts. The second reason is that our topic, Psalm 51, though not itself an acrostic poem, is part of the Psalter in which nine of the 150 psalms are acrostics.

Why is Psalm 51 the subject of these 26 posts? The primary reasons are to showcase this truly amazing psalm, and to celebrate what can only be termed its incredible legacy. This psalm has been, with good reason, named The Psalm of Psalms by some. The reader will need to decide whether this and other superlatives we will encounter along the way are just hyperbole. I hope that many might agree with me that these are well deserved appellations.

There were other ways in which this project on Psalm 51 could have started. For example, the letter A could have been for Augustine, the North African theologian from Hippo, but I have only recently explored Augustine and his sermon on Psalm 51.

Gregorio Allegri (c.1582–1562) was both a Roman Catholic priest and an Italian composer. His most famous work today is his musical setting of the Latin text of Psalm 51. It is known by the shorthand name of Miserere because in Latin this is the first word of Psalm 51. Miserere means mercy in English. The full liturgical title of Psalm 51 and Allegri’s work is Miserere mei, Deus, which means ‘Have mercy on me, O God’. Psalm 51 was so famous for many centuries that the single word, Miserere, would bring it to mind in all sorts of cultural and religious settings.

Allegri’s choral Miserere is the stuff of legend—fitting for a post with so many superlative claims for Psalm 51. Allegri composed his Miserere for use in what are known as Tenebrae services in Holy Week. When Pope Urban VIII heard the work, he was impressed and wanted to preserve Allegri’s work for the Vatican’s use. So, he decreed that it should only be sung in the Sistine Chapel and only at the close of Holy Week. Its beauty would have been all the more startling in this context as it was (and indeed still is) performed by two choirs as a rich polyphonic work, and it followed services in which only plain chant was used. Here is a link to an excellent version of it, sung by VOCES8:

Allegri’s original work evolved after its ‘escape’ from the Sistine Chapel. The full story of its escape, courtesy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart around 1770, can be found in a BBCFOUR documentary.

So far, Psalm 51 is living up to our earlier superlatives, at least in terms of a remarkable musical legacy—I hope you agree that Allegri’s work is as hauntingly beautiful as its story is remarkable.